What Is Realist Art? Definition, Artists and Examples

Posted by Robert Lange on

What is realist art? It’s a school of art that has its roots in the 19th century. Realist art is characterized by precision, detail, faithful representations, natural lighting and tackling everyday subjects. In this article, we delve into the topic of realist art and discuss it in more detail. Are you interested? Then we invite you to read on.

What Is Realist Art? Definition

Realist art, also known as realism, naturalism, or objective realism, is an approach to art that seeks to represent reality as closely as possible. The approach comes from Europe and dates back to the 19th century – it was meant to be the reaction to the established romanticism and history painting. It is considered the beginning of modern art. Since then, realism has been evolving, encompassing different techniques, styles, and subject matters.

Realist art sets itself apart from romanticized or idealized perspectives and focuses on the world as it is. Thus, it depicts moments of everyday life, with previously hidden “ugliness” finally seeing the daylight. 

Naturalism doesn’t focus on historical figures or momentous events – instead, it delves into the life of ordinary people, depicting the working class, rural landscapes, and urban life. Simply said, realist art could be defined as the emphasis on the common man/woman.

Characteristics of Realist Art

Realist art has several characteristics which distinguish it from its predecessors and heirs. Take a look at them now.

  • Precision and detail – Realist artists are known for their meticulous attention to detail. Nothing is left to chance, every brushstroke is intentional, the level of precision is outstanding, and enables these artists to truly bring life to canvas.
  • Faithful representation – Realist art emphasizes faithful representation, aiming to mirror reality with accuracy. This commitment to truth is evident in the portrayal of subjects, whether it be the wrinkles on an elderly face or the texture of a worn-out piece of furniture. Unlike previous approaches, realism isn’t afraid of ugliness or dominated by taboos – it shows life just as it is.
  • Natural lighting – Realist artists often use natural lighting to enhance the authenticity of their compositions. The interplay of light and shadow becomes a crucial element in capturing the nuances of the depicted scenes, but also in making them feel truly realistic.
  • Everyday subjects – Unlike some other art movements that focused on historical or mythical themes, realist art finds its beauty in the ordinary. Common people, landscapes, and scenes from daily life take center stage, letting viewers build a connection to the familiar.

What Are the Realist Artists Worth Knowing?

Through the ages, we have seen many skillful realist artists who knew how to define and redefine realist art and follow its principles. Nevertheless, we need to stop and leave a few words about the three artists who we believe were the most important ones.

  • Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) – Often hailed as the father of realism, Courbet's works, such as "The Stone Breakers" and "A Burial at Ornans," epitomize the movement's commitment to portraying the unadorned reality of life.
  • Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) – Millet's "The Gleaners" is a poignant example of realist art, showcasing the artist's dedication to portraying the lives of rural peasants with empathy and authenticity.
  • Édouard Manet (1832-1883) – A pivotal figure bridging the gap between realism and impressionism, Manet's "Olympia" and "Luncheon on the Grass" challenged and still challenge societal norms while remaining grounded in the real world.

Inspiring Examples of the Realism of Today

If you know what contemporary art is, you probably realize that it involves movements derived from 19th-century realism. Let’s now go through them, as they represent what currently is realist art.

  • Photorealism – This is a hyper-realism trend, represented by the likes of Chuck Close, which aims at creating paintings so realistic that they reflect the quality of a photo. It is also often connected with reproducing the contents of a photograph in a painting.
  • Hyperrealism – This is simply photorealism taken to the next level, with even more precision. However, unlike photorealism, it’s not meant to fool the eye but to impress the viewers with technical finesse. Therefore, it often encompasses exaggerations and scale alterings.

realist art definition

LONGBOARD SUMMER - 15.5" x 12" colored pencil on board Kerry Simmons

The Takeaway

So, let’s sum up what realist art is. This is the type of art that is focused on everyday life and creating images faithful to it. Being born in the 19th century, realist art was initially introduced as a counter to romanticism and history paintings. However, it remained popular and evolved into modern styles like photorealism or hyperrealism.

Realist art was revolutionary due to one particular characteristic – its tendency to show life as it is. No longer was “ugliness” hidden, nor lighting effects added to send a meaning. Instead, this art is aimed at connecting the viewer with the common folk, and that’s what makes it beautiful.

Did you like this article? You may also read: What Is an Art Gallery? Everything You Need to Know

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