American Realism Movement

American Realism movement is an artistic movement which began in France during the 19th century when artists such as Gustave Courbet found beauty, poignancy and novelty not in fancy and noble subjects, but in simpler ‘more real’ subjects – often the lives of the poor. People often say “realism” and think “naturalism” instead. Although the two could be synonymous as a style of painting ‘realism’ refers to a few historical movements. Their movements share certain aspects they mean slightly different things, especially regarding individual national histories. American Realism is similar to French Realism and even Socialist Realism in terms of aesthetics and primary intents. Still, as a concept, the significance of American Realism is perhaps even greater, when taking the nation’s acclamation into account. All realists played an important part of our collective art history, yet the United States has more to be thankful for.

Art in the United States

Today, we tend to see the United States as an influential, far-reaching society with great power, which is recognizable at all levels, and therefore in art as well. But things weren’t always that way. A lot of us overlook the fact that The United States of America is very young, both as a country and a nation. In the 18th century, when its independence was declared, art was not exactly the most imperative element to consider. It did exist in some form, but was painstakingly genre-less, mostly based on portraiture and regarded as a luxury, reserved for those who had the wealth to afford it. It was not until the 19th century that first significant steps were taken toward the country’s integrity when it comes to arts and their relationship with the rest of the world. In its first half, two types of painting evolved subsequently – some painters turned to landscape painting, which was the next step in process of American art’s revolution, and others contributed to the emergence of genre painting in the 1830s. Painters who were directly influenced by this period include Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, whose art was the first to announce the rise of American Realism.

The Begining

When the rich industrialists of North America came to collect art in the later 19thcentury, they preferred the French Realist after seeing their work as the proper subject for an oil painting and the detriment of local artists.Randall C Griffin wrote in Winslow Homer monograph that ‘Art buyers in cities from Philadelphia to Boston favoured the work of European artistsand they also preferred Old World subjects, which were thought to be more picturesque and thus superior to native ones’ and further he said ‘As one critic angrily noted although American collectors say give us American subjects, they prefer second-rate Venetian watercolours and white-capped Brittany peasants.’

Winslow Homer, born 24 February, 1836, in Boston Massachusetts, was a tenacious young painter of American subjects. He began his career as a commercial illustrator, providing images for magazines and booklets of sheet music. Yet he had higher ambitions, and in 1867, after covering the American Civil War for Harper’s magazine, he travelled to France for a year to take in the European styles first hand.Upon his return to the US, Homer applied French Realist techniques to US subjects, developing a style of painting known as American Realism. Although authentically American, Homer’s pictures were not to everyone’s taste. The civil war may have primed the US public’s appetite for scenes of homely, innocent American life, and some critics derided Homer’s very popular paintings as cloyingly sentimental. The US novelist Henry James described them as “barbarously simple.”

Nevertheless, Homer persisted, developing a bright, highly rarefied colour palette, a striking accurate style in both oils and watercolours, and a sharp eye for everyday scenes, particularly among the seascapes and seafaring folk of the north-east American coast. In 1881, he travelled to Britain, to depict the working folk of Tyneside, before returning to his native North America.

Presently, younger US artists, such as George Bellows and Edward Hopper, began to depict similar subjects. These younger painters looked in the growing industrial cities, rather than the country, for their subjects. Yet Professor William C. Agee, in his book Modern Art in America, traces later US realist developments, such as the Ashcan school a distinctly gritty, US style of urban realism, which took its name from a 1915 drawing by George Bellows Disappointments of the Ash Can back to “a long and deep-rooted American tradition of Realism that had extended from John Singleton Copley to John F. Peto and William Harnett, and through Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.”

Homer’s realist influence can also be seen in later landscape artists, such as Andrew Wyeth, as well as one of America’s most popular commercial illustrators of the 20th century, Norman Rockwell. Indeed, the great art critic Robert Hughes argued, Homer’s American Realism has become part of American visual culture; “one detects the vestiges of Homer’s watercolors in every outdoor-magazine cover that has a dead whitetail deer draped over a log.”

Real American Realism

When we talk about American realism, we are really talking about the rebellious, progressive Ashcan School – unless we are referring to literature, of course, but we will be focusing on the work of visual artists rather than writers. The thing that differentiated these artists from all the others was their ability to recognize the true potential of American culture, which apparently lay in urban life and translated the atmosphere of a metropolis. Although we sometimes associate the word “metropolis” with glamour and high culture, the reality of a metropolis is based on other characteristics, such as inclusiveness, versatility, class diversity. American realists embraced the colloquial and the informal, the customary and even the “ugly” that defined the day-to-day life of big American cities, such as New York. It was precisely this city that inspired the members of the Ashcan School, most of whom became popular as individual authors. They were the ones to give Europe something they hadn’t seen before.

Impact of the Movement

From a sociological point of view, it is interesting to observe howRobert Henri, JoanSloan, George Bellowsand other members of the school came to an intuitive decision that the city was the one to define what’s real, with its material and immaterial aspects. Accordingly, these people (along with the Ten Painters whose art pertains to the beginnings of American Modernism) were the ones who made it possible for American art and culture to become what it is today. In other words, you can be positive that Pop Art wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t for this confident move and foretelling mindset, even if the two may seem essentially different. Of course, many other factors that came later, such as the film industry and music industry, made significant impact on their cultural development as well, but that still doesn’t come close to the epiphany that made American artists recognize novelty and industrialization as the features that could help America achieve authenticity. It was one excellent way to represent the country in a realistic, yet patriotic way; and to tacitly monopolize the image of urbanity and democracy, one which it still aims to portray today.

Robert Henri insisted that artists should make “pictures from life”, and so the Ashcan School was conceived. Still, not to focus on one aspect of American realism solely, you should consider this illustrative book, which brings together 250 paintings from the American realist period, placed in a wider context. The members of Ashcan School are, naturally, included, but you will also be able to take a look at the works of other masters such as Mary Casatt, whose art was aesthetically closer to impressionism, or Andrew Wyeth, who came on the scene a little later in the 20th century.


An art is something which you convey using your materials. American Realism movement has helped the Americans to develop in their style of art and in innovative ways. Due to this movement paintings became famous and people started painting. Painting started having different forms due to this movement. We can conclude by saying that it has a great impact in the America and it has really helped to improve their form of Art and people started improving by their ideas. The country achieved is its own form of Art due to this movement.



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