What Is Realism?

What Is Realism

What is realism? When I think about realism art, I think about society today. The push that the younger generations have to be raw, authentic and transparent with how we present ourselves to the world is similar to that of the realism movement. The realistic movement came about to be around the 1850s, remembered to be initiated in France. This is not to say that other places in the world didn’t find themselves discovering realistic art styles around the same time. It came to be following romanticism.

Artists no longer wanted to share a skewed depiction of reality. Rather, they found themselves wanting to pour honesty into their work. Artists found themselves sharing the harsh realities of the working class. The bleak sorrows that people were feeling during this time were depicted through darker, more neutral colors. During the realism movement, nude bodies also began to be painted and shared.

Once again, honest depictions of the human body, rather than a romanticized version of what artists believed their viewers would want to see. If we had to express a realism definition in art, it is safe to say that this movement was an artist’s take on creating a true mirror of life. No photoshop necessarily. What was around them was what showed up on the medium before them.

Characteristics of Realism

  • Detail: The definition of realism can be found within the details of each piece. During this movement, details were one of the most important elements of a piece. Not just details, but true details. The artists’ goals within this movement period were to be as true as possible to what stood before and around them. Leaving room for interpretation was not an option. Rather, the goal was to include as much fine detail as possible in hopes to make the viewer feel as if the painting were another part of the world that they lived in. This was a change following idealized romanticism as blurred and altered depictions of reality was no longer the norm. No, this was a time for artists to find honesty pouring out onto the surface before them.
  • Color: There were and are many types of realism art which existed and continue to exist in our world. Something a lot of these pieces had and have in common is their color palettes. During the realism movement, it was really common for artists to turn to warmer palettes. Using colors such as warm browns, reds, ivories and dark hues. Once again, everything boiled down to being as realistic as possible, as true as possible. If life itself was not pale blues and mystical pinks, why share this on the canvas? The realities of life for the working class were in fact bleak and draining, therefore this was attempted to be displayed and presented through a darker yet still warm color palette.
  • The Subjects: As previously mentioned, during this period of work there was a large shift in many aspects of the work being created. One of these shifts was the subject found within each piece. No longer were hero types being depicted and put in the spot of life, but the working class was now the center of attention. Due to the reason that honesty and raw authenticity, why not center an entire art movement around the idea of representing true realities.

About Art Movement

What is the realism movement if we focus on historical aspects and events in time? To dig a little deeper into what the driving forces behind this shift in movements were, we can turn our attention to the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution, artists found themselves centering their works around the idealization of their subjects. Artists found ways to take the not so glamorous aspects of what stood before them and turn them into something people would yearn for.

They did this through the use of high art and idealized romanticism. As the Industrial Revolution came into the forefront, a clear shift occurred. Artists became comfortable to stray from the confines of their previous high art mannerisms. These changes, no matter how shocking, were indeed refreshing to witness. To relate back to our world and society today, it is comparable to that of someone who uses heavy editing and filters to mask their truths and realities in comparison to someone who shows all sides of themselves to the world.

I guess, why hide what is clearly standing before us? Why not create and share work that is relatable to the lives we are all living? Why only cater to the liking of the high class and distinguished when we can cater to the liking of the general population? In my eyes, these ideas play a large role in the significance of realism.

Forms of Realism

There were many forms of realism which came to be during the time of this movement as it progressed.

Social Realism

Social Realism came to be in the 1920s and 1930s. This particular moment in realism was all about depicting the truths of the social class. These works of art were created in attempts to present to society the hardships that were being faced and the social injustices and issues that existed in the lives of the working class.

Socialist Realism

Socialist Realism

From 1925 to 1935, Socialist Realism presented itself. This particular movement was introduced as a form of public propaganda in order to portray the realities of the industrialization in Soviet Russia. During this time, as in many historical propaganda pieces, bold and loud colors were used in order to draw the attention of viewers. However, Socialist Realism did find itself straying from the attempts of mirroring reality through art as the pieces created did not resemble much of everyday life.


In the 1920s and 30s, Surrealism was coexisting alongside other forms. In tandem with the theories of Sigmund Freud, Surrealism was meant to be a form of art which tapped into the unconscious mind, releasing a new realm of creative potential. Surrealism was thought to be an extremely inspiring movement which could be why the essence of this moment in time is still present in art today. The works of surrealism were thought to be those of artists’ fantasies and inner workings.

Magic Realism

Magic Realism

Alongside Surrealism, we had Magic realism. Magic realism was viewed as an art which displayed the realities of everyday life with additions of fantasies layered on top. Although the realism movement was all about sharing the realities of the surrounding world through art, there were still certain freedoms and liberties that artists took within their works. Magic Realism is a great example of such a statement.

American Scene Painting and Midwest Regionalism

American Scene Painting and Midwest Regionalism

Finally, we have the American Scene Painting and Midwest Regionalism portion to the realism movement. From 1925 to 1945, this American Scene and Midwest paintings welcomed all the ideas of the realism movement, depicting many American scenes and imagery.

Famous Realism Paintings

Now that we have an in-depth understanding of realism art, it is time we take a look at some popular examples of realism art. Here is a realism artists list along with the names of their works.

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur – 1853

Rosa Bonheur is the perfect answer to the question “What is historical realism?”. Rosa Bonheur was considered to be one of the most acclaimed female painters of the 19th century. Her piece entitled The Horse Fair shows the realities of a horse market which took place in Paris. During Rosa’s research for this piece, she spent years attending this market dressing up as a male. Although a painting, this piece of work depicts an abundance of movement, making you feel as if you yourself were present at this market.

The Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet – 1859

The Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet - 1859

The Angelus, also known as L’Angélus was one of the many depictions of peasants which came to fruition during this movement. This piece is a religious piece, displaying two peasants at the end of a long day’s work, bowing their heads down to say the Angelus. The colors of this painting are dark and bleak, perhaps encompassing the hardships these two would have faced earlier on in the day.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper – 1942

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper - 1942

This famous oil on canvas piece is quite a popular piece of work. This painting is of a diner on the corner of a quiet street. Inside, through the glass, we can see the reality of a diner when the world has gone to sleep. The simplicity of this painting is captivating at first glance. Though the longer you look, the more details you can see which can draw you in for hours.

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth – 1948

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth - 1948

Christina’s world is one of my favorite pieces of work from the realism movement. The simplicity within this particular piece allows the eyes time to indulge in the details of the setting. In this piece you will see the back of a woman in the forefront, staring into the distance at a home adjacent to a barn. The background is filled with a pale blue sky and a warm field of yellow, orange and green hues. There is something so calming about the vastness of this particular work. I feel warm when I look at it.

The Realism Movement in Present Day

The modern realism definition is simply a way of encompassing realistic artwork. Although this movement presented itself long in the past, it is still used and celebrated to this day. The qualities of this particular art movement definitely withstood the test of time. This makes sense as seeing art mirror life is well-received and at times wanted by the world. At times, this mirror is even necessary.

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