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Realism is a widely used term in the arts. In literature, it came into being as a response to Romanticism. While Romanticism focused on the inner, spiritual side of human nature, and was skewed toward the exceptional and Sublime, Realism focused on the mundane, the everyday. Realism focussed on the ideology of objective reality and revolted against exaggerated emotionalism of Romanticism. It was more "democratic" in orientation, interested in the life of the majority, not the elite. As an artistic strategy, it was an attempt to focus literature on the objective, the concrete; the physical and social milieu was depicted in painstaking detail to convey the ethos of the society. Characters were portrayed in their social setting, which shaped their actions and their choices. Realism is often referred to as an attempt to portray things "as they are," but in fact, it was itself another artistic strategy, employing verisimilitude for artistic ends.

Literary Realism began as a cultural movement with its roots in France, where it was a very popular art form, not only in France but the in rest of Europe as well, from the mid to late 1800s. It was aided with the introduction of photography—a new visual source that created a desire for people to produce things that looked “objectively real.” It became popular in America largely in the early twentieth century.

In the visual arts it refers to a style of depiction that attempts to portray subjects as they appear in everyday life, without embellishment or interpretation. The term is also used to describe works of art which, in revealing a truth, may emphasize the ugly or sordid. Realist artists focused on that side of "reality" which had often been excluded in Romantic art, the unflattering truth of the underside of elite culture.

Realism in literature

Realism is a literary technique practiced by many schools of writing. This style focuses particularly on the representation of middle-class life and is a reaction against Romanticism. According to William Harmon and Hugh Holman, "Where romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence" (A Handbook to Literature 428).

In American literature, the term "realism" encompasses the period of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century, during which William Dean Howells, Rebecca Harding Davis, Henry James, Mark Twain, and others wrote fiction devoted to accurate representation and exploration of American lives in various contexts.

Realism was a movement that encompassed the entire country, or at least the Midwest and South, although many of the writers and critics associated with realism (notably W. D. Howells) were based in New England. Among the Midwestern writers considered realists would be Joseph Kirkland, E. W. Howe, and Hamlin Garland; the Southern writer John W. DeForest's Miss Ravenal's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, is often considered a realist novel.

Key characteristics

  • Renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. Selective presentation of reality with an emphasis on verisimilitude, even at the expense of a well-made plot
  • Character is more important than action and plot; complex ethical choices are often the subject.
  • Characters appear in their real complexity of temperament and motive; they are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past.
  • Class is important; the novel has traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class. (See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel)
  • Events will usually be plausible. Realistic novels avoid the sensational, dramatic elements of naturalistic novels and romances.
  • Diction is natural vernacular, not heightened or poetic; tone may be comic, satiric, or matter-of-fact.
  • Objectivity in presentation becomes increasingly important: Overt authorial comments or intrusions diminish as the century progresses.
  • Interior or psychological realism is a variant form.
  • In Black and White Strangers, Kenneth Warren suggests that a basic difference between realism and sentimentalism is that in realism, "the redemption of the individual lay within the social world," but in sentimental fiction, "the redemption of the social world lay with the individual" (75-76).
  • The realism of James and Twain was critically acclaimed in twentieth century; Howellsian realism fell into disfavor as part of early twentieth century rebellion against the "genteel tradition."[1]

Nineteenth century realism

Realism was a response to both Neoclassicism and Romanticism, and for the entire group, history had no artistic relevance or importance.[2] Gustave Courbet, the leader of the realism movement, defined Realism as a "human conclusion which awakened the very forces of man against paganism, Greco-Roman art, the Renaissance, Catholicism, and the gods and demigods, in short against the conventional ideal." The Realists, who were influenced by the Dutch and Flemish naturalists of the seventeenth century, were dedicated wholeheartedly to an establishment founded on justice for the working class, the ordinary citizens of society. In fact, all the artists, politicians, economists, and critics congregated in the Andler Keller, a type of restaurant serving food at all hours, which eventually became known as the temple of Realism. In 1863, after being shunned by Count Nieuwerkerke at the Universal Exposition of 1855, Courbet and friends organized a Salon de Refusés. This was an exhibition that included the works of those who are now recognized as the premier painters of the period. Astoundingly, two of the greatest Realist masters, Daumier and Courbet, were actually forced to serve prison sentences as a result of their involvement in the rebellion against uniformity.


With the arrival of photography, the world of visual arts would be altered significantly. The idea of photography itself was not new, and some artists had even employed some form of it. The concept of photography revolved around light passing through a small aperture as it registers the image of its subjects upon any surface which it may strike. The camera obscura was used by artists throughout the ages and specialized particularly by Vermeer. Daguerreotypes soon became popular by the hundreds of thousands. The first photo portrait was made by Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. The possibilities were enormous, but for many artists, a point of concern. With the invention of photography, the art of portraiture would become almost non-existent. By 1858, photography was an assured fact, and photographers were able to prove at last how living beings really look in motion, to the great discomfiture of artists in the classic tradition with their contrived poses. In other words, photographs capture the essence of the action, the movement as it is, and there is absolutely no doubt in the veracity or accuracy of the photograph. This fits in perfectly with the realists because their sole focus is to portray the world, as it is, and not in a blown-up, romantic manner.

Painting in France


"Conceived in total isolation form the earliest photographic experiments, yet mysteriously parallel to them, the new objective style becomes apparent first in the quiet early landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot" (Hartt). Corot strayed away from classical conventions and emphasized the sanctity of nature and the harmony of humanity and nature in the Italian landscape and the beauty of Italian light. The purpose of the light was to unify all objects on the canvas as on one plane. Corot's primary concern was not as much for the figures in the painting as it is for the landscape. What must be noted is that although Corot was a realist, his work has very little in common with the somber tones of other Realist landscape painters. Corot's soft, silvery light was far away from reality, yet his landscapes were surely influenced by the reality of the photography in the nearly monochromatic and soft-focus landscapes of his later years.


"Another painter who settled in the forest of Fontainebleau, at the village of Barbizon, and was not likely to be found among the Realists of the Andler Keller, was Jean François Millet" (Hartt). Millet preferred to live like a peasant and dedicated his life to the painting of peasants, in whose attachment to the soil he found a religious quality. Up to this point in art history, peasants had often been portrayed as moronic or senseless; however, Millet saw them as something more: Actors who were performing their role on the stage of life. His figures stride in almost angelic forms with a Michelangelesque grandeur.


Honoré Daumier was the realist most absorbed with the earth and ground. He worked in the lithograph technique, which involved drawing on porous stone with a pencil. The realist affiliation with peasantry and the working class shows in full bloom in Daumier's work. One of his most powerful lithographs, Rue Transonian, April 15, 1834, depicts an incident during the insurrection of that month in which all the inhabitants of a working-class house were slaughtered in reprisal for shots fired at a single soldier. Although Daumier was imprisoned as a result of these challenging creations, he continued to portray the working class as an allegorical hero who gathered old and young about him in a march through the grim streets of poverty. Instead of littering the canvas of his painting with hundreds of individuals and utter chaos, Daumier intelligently sketches in only a few heads, and hints at hundreds of windows with a few dark brushstrokes. This deliberate style creates extreme tension and an impending exposure of the herd of people creeping in the dark, closer and closer to the light. It wasn't until 1862, when his Third-Class Carriage demonstrated a concern for the fate of human beings. Ordinary people of both sexes and all ages are brought together physically, yet are spiritually isolated. Daumier's use of light and shade, and his implicit depiction of the mass with quick and free contours give the painting a much needed credibility in the era of realist painting.


Gustave Courbet was the apostle of Realism. He, like other Realist painters, was raised in poverty. Born in the poverty-ridden village of Ornans, Courbet came to Paris determined to leave an imprint on the art of the capital. He was devoted to concrete reality and the art of the past. Like Daumier, Courbet was a strong republican and champion of working-class rights and ideas. He said, "The art of painting should consist only in the representation of objects which the artist can see and touch. I hold that the artists of a century are completely incapable of reproducing the things of a preceding or a future century… It is for this reason that I reject history painting when applied to the past. History painting is essentially contemporary" (Hartt). Courbet's Stone Breakers created plenty of controversy and attracted criticism when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1850. A public that was submerged in the waves of romantic and neoclassicist ideals had no way of appreciating reality. This painting depicted the dehumanizing labor of breaking stones into gravel for road repairs. He conceals the faces of the figures to give it a universal ideology. Another famous realist work of Gustave Courbet was A Burial at Ornans. He depicts the imminence of death hovering above people's heads. "The inescapable end of an ordinary inhabitant of the village is represented with sober realism and a certain rough grandeur" (Hartt). The canvas, about twenty-two feet long, was so large that the artist could not step back in the studio to see the whole work, yet it is throughly unified. The entire painting is constructed in an S-curve, with the figures standing with the simple dignity and embracing their destiny. Each face is painted with all of Courbet's dignity and sculptural density. The entire landscape is on level ground, with no figure towering above the other, which is the most appropriate depiction of a funeral. Courbet attempts to depict the reality of life, in this scene, by showing that in death, rich and poor, are all equal.

Painting in the United States

  • Winslow Homer

The influence of Realism spread throughout Europe. Talented American artists arrived in France in the mid nineteenth century and were instantly impressed by the work of the Barbizon painters (Corot, Courbet). Winslow Homer adhered to the works of Courbet and particularly imitated his use of the density of substance and pigment. Corot's influence in his clarity of forms and space was discernible as well.

  • Thomas Eakins

Arguably the greatest native-born artist, Thomas Eakins visited France and Spain before returning back to the states in 1870. His appreciation for the work of Spanish painter Velázquez was undeniable. His painting consisted of powerful works uncompromisingly founded on fact. Like Velázquez, Eakins' work searched the psychological analysis of great depth and emotional intensity, dryly painted, without the richness of the pigment in which Corot and Courbet delighted. Eakins was fascinated by the new art of photography, and used it as an aid in his researches into reality, becoming a remarkably proficient photographer himself. Eakins's work deals with an inherently repulsive subject not only in a direct and analytical manner, but also with a certain reverence for the mystery of human existence.

The Pre-Raphaelites

While the Realism movement was taking off in France and the United States, an independent but related revolution against official art was taking place among a group of extremely young and gifted English artists. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was founded in 1848, by youngsters William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. In the group were famed painters Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Ford Madox Brown. The name was given to them due to their belief that in spite of Raphael's greatness, the decline of art since his day was attributable to a misunderstanding of his principles. They demanded a precise realism in the smallest detail, founded perhaps on the early Netherlandish painters, but betrayed the influence of the daguerreotype. Visual honesty permeated throughout their work, as in all realist painters; however, the subject itself had to be important and invested with moral dignity, and the artist had to interpret it directly, as if it were happening in front of the observer, without any reference to accepted principles of composition, posing, or color.

  • John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, Royal Academy (1850)

The Pre-Raphaelite style was prevalent best in this piece. The colors were unexpectedly bright and the figures, based on working-class models, reflected no interest in conventional beauty. The ordinary faces, particularly that of the weary Virgin Mary, brought down the denunciation of no less a figure than Charles Dickens. With time, the Pre-Raphaelites' position of transcendental honesty and moral dignity was perhaps too rigid to be maintained indefinitely. Although they were all long-lived, their styles changed eventually, and not always for the better. By the 1880s, the movement had been transformed into a new mixture of medievalism and aestheticism in which the original purity of the purpose was lost.

The rhetoric of Realism: Courbet and the origins of the Avant-Garde

"The rhetoric of realism is not confined to artists in France; it is written across the age and across Europe. Karl Marx's manifesto depicts the movement of Realism at heart:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation
hitherto honored and looked up with reverent awe. It has
converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet,
the man of science into its paid wage-laborers…Constant
revolutioning of production, uninterrupted disturbance
of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agi-
tation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones
...All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,
and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his
real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."[3]

Marx's words are congruent with images from Realist art.

The Realist doctrine

"The doctrine of the Realists, like those of the Neoclassicists and the Romanticists could not be maintained for long in their original purity. Too many aspects of natural human feeling and imagination were excluded. But the immense historic value of Realism lay in its insistence on the priority of vision over either abstract principles of form and composition or emotional and narrative content. The Realist emphasis on the here and now was instrumental in the formation of Impressionism. It would reappear minimally in the twentieth century, and at times, was even more fanatical" (Hartt).


  1. Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  2. Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.
  3. F. Stephen Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art, A Critical History.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Campbell, Donna M. Literary Realism. Retrieved August 13, 2007.
  • Eisenmann, Stephen F. Nineteenth Century Art, A Critical History. Thames and Hudson, 2002. ISBN 0500283354
  • Gardner, Helen. Art Through the Ages, Sixth Edition. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1975, ISBN 0155037536
  • Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989. ISBN 0810918846
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. A History of Romanesque Art. Retrieved August 07, 2007.
  • West, Shearer. The Bullfinch Guide to Art. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1996. ISBN 0-8212-2137-X

External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.

Western art movements
Renaissance · Mannerism · Baroque · Rococo · Neoclassicism · Romanticism · Realism · Pre-Raphaelite · Academic · Impressionism · Post-Impressionism
20th century
Modernism · Cubism · Expressionism · Abstract expressionism · Abstract · Neue Künstlervereinigung München · Der Blaue Reiter · Die Brücke · Dada · Fauvism · Art Nouveau · Bauhaus · De Stijl · Art Deco · Pop art · Futurism · Suprematism · Surrealism · Minimalism · Post-Modernism · Conceptual art


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