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American Realism: the first American vanguard movement

Monday, November 20

Realism in the visual arts can be described as the attempt to accurately represent reality by avoiding the search for aesthetic beauty and focusing on the mundane and the real. Often mistaken for Naturalism, which shares the same style and primary intent, Realism reacts to specific historical events, originally reflecting the changes brought by the industrial and commercial revolutions.

Realism began in France after the French revolution of 1848. The movement was expressed in the fields of literature, visual and performing arts, and was a rebellion against the strong drama and emotionalism of the Romantic Movement, which was in fashion at the time. Realism was the first explicitly anti-institutional, nonconformist art movement and had important hubs in France, in the Soviet Union (Socialist Realism) and in the United States (American Realism), all sharing the same style, aesthetics, and intent.

Realism portrayed everyday life, including its unpleasant aspects. Realist works depicted contemporary realities of ordinary people, becoming an important theme in visual arts at the beginning of the 20th century. In the United States, Winslow Homer can be considered a pioneering precursor of American Realism, as his work mainly approached subjects from everyday life. However, Homer was focused on rural life, not the rapidly changing urban environments of the time. Yet Homer’s work is considered the beginning of a new perspective in American art. American Realism started with the next generation: George Bellows, Joan Sloan, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper and other artists who formed the Ashcan School.

The Ashcan School was a group of realist artists in New York City who sought to capture the feel of the early-20th-century metropolis. These artists chose to depict the reality of the big cities, observing the rich and culturally textured lives of its lower classes instead of the privileged lives of the upper classes. This choice of subject triggered heavy criticism in the art world, which rejected the scenarios of life in the alleys, slums and taverns as portrayed by these artists. The Ashcan School aimed at defining the real, and bringing to light a kind of life completely neglected before. For them, the city itself - with its material and immaterial aspects - was what defined reality, not the elitist art world. Because the American realists embraced the informal, the customary and even the “ugly” that defined the day-to-day life of big American cities, their critics labeled these artists “apostles of ugliness”.

What also differentiated the Ashcan School from other movements was its practitioners ability to recognize the direction of American culture, as it was emerging in urban life in the new, big American metropolises. This outlook made it possible for American art to become what it is today, as it built the foundations for the creation of modern art. The Ashcan School was the first step towards other artistic movements, such as Pop Art.  George Bellows, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, George Benjamin Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, Edward Hopper and other artists less well known are the American Realists who presented the country through the cold lens of the real, thus laying the groundwork for contemporary American art. They normalized the convention that everyday life and the modern world were suitable subjects for art.

ShopMuse Social Media, and this Article, are created by Felipe Luiz Tiradentes dos Santos of The Hague, Netherlands.  


Image of George Bellows' Men of the Docks, 1912.  The National Gallery, London.

George bellows   men of the docks   1912   the national gallery