Beginnings and Development

Benjamin West, <i>The Death of General Wolfe</i> (1770). West applied the Neoclassical style to contemporary New World subjects, such as great colonial battles and the lives of Native Americans.

Now ranked as the first internationally recognized American painter, Benjamin West is chiefly associated with academic style of Neoclassicism (and, in his later career, Romanticism). Indeed, his most famous historical narratives, such as his career defining Death of General Wolfe (1770), were designed specifically to elicit an emotional response in the viewer by inviting them to sympathize with noble human acts (such as General Wolfe's self-sacrifice at the Battle of Quebec). But his Neoclassical compositions were somewhat atypical, not just because he focused on contemporary subjects and events, but also because West introduced finely observed contemporary details into his tableaus such as clothing and weaponry. For his part, Copley adopted a direct approach to his sitters. It was a style that presented a fierce challenge to the more austere Academy portraiture and gave rise to a series of naturalistic portraits that have become the definitive visual record of the dignity and valour of New World pioneers including John Hancock (1765), Paul Revere (1768), and Samuel Adams (1772).

George Caleb Bingham, <i>Fur Traders Descending the Missouri</i> (1845). The Met Museum describes how this work was titled by the artist “French Trader & Half breed Son” but New York's American Art-Union (which promoted American art nationally) changed it to its less controversial title, adding that the “tranquil scene, with its luminous atmosphere, idealized the American frontier for the benefit of an Eastern [American] audience”.

Blending idealism with realism, The Hudson River School (1826-70), whose members - including Asher B. Durand, George Inness, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt and John Frederick Kensett - were drawn to (what was at that time) the unique upper New York state wilderness, is considered the first unified American art movement. Taking their lead from the spectacular landscape paintings of the English émigré Thomas Cole, the "second generation" Hudson School (from 1848) imported the influence of European Romanticism, the idea of the sublime, and adopted the allegory that the magnificent American landscape, especially so when brought to life on vast canvases, symbolized the limitless possibilities for a fledgling American nation. This style was however tempered by a pronounced realist element that emerged in the Group's collective commitment to Naturalism which was most evident in the artists' meticulous attention to the details in nature.

Bingham, meanwhile, was the foremost midwestern landscapists of the first half of the 19th century. His depictions of Missouri frontier life (during the 1830s and 1840s, Missouri remained at the edge of the American frontier and a point of departure for explorers and pioneers heading west), in images such as Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), created a representative, if unabashedly idealized, picture of the day-to-day working life in and around America's midwestern waterways.

Homer and Eakins

Winslow Homer is regarded by many as the greatest nineteenth century American painter. He is best known perhaps for a series of raw gestural works that depicted man's struggle against the mighty forces of the sea. Prior to this, however, he had developed a style of Realism that set precedents for American art. In October 1861 he was dispatched to Virginia as a war artist/correspondent for the journal Harper's Weekly. His civil war paintings, such as The Army at Potomac - A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty (1862) and The Veteran in a New Field (1863) reflected his first-hand experience of the war and its human impact. Indeed, Homer's war paintings were executed with a detached objectivity that avoided the romanticized and heroic battle scenes that were a staple of history paintings.

Homer's works mirrored in fact the "new" war documentary photography being produced simultaneously by Matthew Brady and his team (including Timothy O'Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, and George N. Barnard). Collectively Homer and Brady's team provided a definitive documentary record of the American Civil War. Once the war had ended, Homer turned his attention to everyday rural scenes of women and school-children at work and at play, and to hunting scenes. In the mid-1870s, Homer returned to Virginia where he turned his observational eye (and brush) this time towards the daily lives of former slaves during the first decade of Emancipation. Meanwhile, Homer's contemporary, the domestic portraitist and painter of sporting scenes (such as swimming and wrestling), Thomas Eakins, produced paintings with an almost scientific detachment. Eakins was one of the first American artists to embrace the medium of photography and he used it as a tool on which construct his compositions. He sought to create an anatomically accurate human forms and would be a key influence on the Ashcan School that carried the torch of American Realism into the twentieth century.

The Post-War West

Jonathan Eastman Johnson, <i>Negro Life in the South</i> (1859). Johnson spent over three years studying at The Hague where he made close studies of Dutch 17th-century painting, particularly the works of Rembrandt.

Jonathan Eastman Johnson (aka Jonathan Eastman) was the eminent American genre painter on the late nineteenth century (a fact acknowledged as he was the co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) who made his name both as a portraitist (his sitters included Abraham Lincoln, Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and a painter of everyday American life. He had studied at Germany's Düsseldorf Academy and in The Hague during the 1850s and his work owed an obvious debt to the seventeenth century Dutch masters (hence his moniker: "the American Rembrandt"). Johnson's painting presented a clear departure for American Realism in that it helped widen the definition of what it meant to be an "ordinary American".

His everyday vignettes were not idealized or romanticized while his paintings of life in the West dealt head on with the sensitive issues of slavery and poverty. Indeed, in 1859 his New York exhibition, Negro Life in the South, caused disquiet amongst audience members. His images of the leisure activities of a group of slaves proved a sensation at a time when the injustices of slavery were at the top of the political agenda. Such was the success of the exhibition Johnson was made Associate to the National Academy of Design. In subsequent decades Johnson turned to themes of national life, painting humble interior scenes near his second home on the island of Nantucket. (In his later career he gave up genre painting and returned to portraiture for which he received handsome fees.)

Post War Frontier life

Charles Marion - “The Kid” - Russell, <i>The Scouts</i> (1902). The Sotheby's Auction House describes how Russell devoted his life to “documenting scenes of a rapidly disappearing Native American cultures and the close of the American Frontier, as well as romantic visions of the West”.

Born in 1864, Charles Marion Russell (aka Kid Russell), would produce dynamic Cowboy Art based on his intimate knowledge and experience of frontier life in and around Montana. Raised in a comfortable middle-class home in St. Louis, Missouri, Russell was an avid reader of dime-store westerns and spent his childhood daydreaming of life as a cowboy. Concerned with his poor school record, and his frequent bouts of truancy, Charlie's parents sent their 15-year-old son on a summer vacation to a ranch in Montana in the hope he would learn some discipline. He never came home. Coinciding with the western cattle boom, Russell had realized his dream by taking on a two-year apprenticeship as a horse wrangler. As a way of passing his down time, Kid Russell would sketch scenes of cattle drives and model horses from wax.

Russell made friends of the Blackfeet, Arapaho, Kootenai and Crow tribes before, in 1888, living with the Kainai Nation (aka The Bloods), with whom he hunted, learned their language, legends and customs and incorporated their tribal symbols and emblems in his painting. As the art historian Arthur Hoeber put it, Russell "paints the West that has passed from an intimate personal knowledge of it; for he was in the midst of it all, and he has the tang of its spirit in his blood".

The Ashcan School (1900-1915)

The term "ash can art" was first used around 1916 and is attributed to the artist Art Young. The label, Ashcan School, and its later incarnation, The Eight, has been applied to a number of Philadelphia and New York painters (and even photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine) working in the first two decades on the twentieth century. While there is a lack of agreement on who "belonged" legitimately to this rather informal group, Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, William J. Glackens, George Luks and Everett Shinn, and later, Edwin Lawson, Maurice Prendergast and Arthur B. Davis are considered amongst its principle players. Though they were committed to representing the realities of everyday urban life, the artist's believed in freedom of expression and the idea that artists should be free to exhibit their works without pressure from academies and awards juries.

Prior to the emergence of the Ashcan School, the plein air style was the dominant trend in American painting. With their light palettes and loose brushwork, the likes of William Merritt Chase and Mary Cassatt carried the torch for the romantic idyls that became known as American Impressionism. Inspired chiefly by Henri - who worked off the maxim "art for life's sake" - the Ashcan artists set themselves apart from the Impressionists. The Group concerned itself with subject matter centered on the dynamism of metropolitan street-life. Featuring scenes of sports bars, alleyways, movie theaters, boxing arenas, and the daily lives of prostitutes, immigrants and working-class communities, the School's loose style borrowed variously from the traditions of seventeenth century Spanish and Dutch, and nineteenth century French, realism. But it was perhaps George Bellows, taught by Henri and influenced by Eakins, who emerged as the true progenitor of American Urban Realism. His oeuvre reveals the artist's readiness to tackle a range of urban subjects and to experiment with new color and compositional arrangements.

Precisionism and Regionalism

The American avant-garde took off proper following the International Exhibition of Modern Art (known as the Armory Show since it was staged in vast US National Guard armories) of 1913. It was a landmark event in the history of American modernism, giving rise to what was considered the first truly homegrown avant-garde movement: Precisionism. Although Precisionists such as Paul Strand, Charles Scheeler, Georgia O'Keeffe, Niles Spencer and Ralston Crawford took their lead from the distilled geometric forms of Cubism, Futurism and Orphism, their subject matter, which included city streets, skyscrapers, rail networks, steel works and grain depots, saw them tackle much of the same subject matter as the Ashcan School (indeed, Edward Hopper has been claimed variously by historians for both groups).

However, once the Great Depression and the Dustbowl crisis had taken hold, many American artists challenged the "self-indulgences" of semi-abstraction by producing a narrative art that spoke directly to the folk living in the American Heartlands. The best-known of the Regionalists were Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. They produced art that reflected the hardships of provincial American life (although the sincerity of their work has since been the cause of some debate amongst art historians). Collectively, the Regionalists were associated with an authentic local art that overlapped the traditions of American folk with even Old Master paintings. Curry found favor producing idealized and nostalgic, depictions of community and religious life while Wood produced American Gothic (1930) one of the most iconic American artworks in the country's history.

Doris Lee, <i>General Store and Post Office</i> (1938). The post office/general store was the cornerstone of rural community life. Lee's front and behind scenes tableau drew on the traditions of American folk art. Her Regionalist painting amounted to a paean to the simple quality of rural life.

Among the best-known Regionalists was Doris (Emrick) Lee. Indeed, she emerged as one of the most successful female artists of the Depression era. Lee's tableau of women preparing a Thanksgiving banquet drew national headlines when it won the prestigious Logan Purchase Prize in 1935. The theme of Thanksgiving tied in with the Regionalist focus on rural life customs which Lee executed in style reminiscent of American folk art. Works such as this were hugely popular with those still living in the grip of the Great Depression but Josephine Logan (donor of the Logan prize) condemned Lee's "exaggerated" style. Indeed, the following year Logan founded the conservative "Society for Sanity in Art" in protest. The Society opposed all forms of modernism and any mode of art that deviated from academy standards. Branches of the Society established themselves all around the country and artists associated with the group included: Haig Patigian, William Winthrop Ward, Florence Louise Bryant, Henry (Percy) Gray and Frank Montague Moore.

American Social Realism

Overlapping with Regionalism, was the urban American Social Realist movement. It was in fact a global movement that was particularly prevalent in Communist and/or Socialist countries (such as the Russia, China, and Mexico) where state sponsored art was used to the ends of state propaganda. Socialist Realism was/is a figurative and realistic art in which the lives of "the workers" and the politically disenfranchised are celebrated in an act of social solidarity. The Social Realists rejected avant-gardism as being elitist and therefore lacking inof social resonance. For these artists, art should serve as a political weapon in the fight against capitalist systems and, in other instances, to attack the advance of international fascism.

The American Social Realists objected to the sentimentality and national stereotypes they saw in Regionalism and, in New York (the bedrock of American leftist politics), the Fourteenth Street Group formed, by Kenneth Hayes Miller, championed the working men and women of the city. The sense of group activity was echoed in the collective actions of the artists who joined pickets, protested vocally against social injustices, and made demands for permanent recognition by the government. Comprising, amongst others, the Russian -born Soyer brothers (Isaac, Raphael, and Moses), Isabel Bishop, and Reginald Marsh, the group found poetry in the messiness of quotidian city living. William Gropper and Ben Shahn, meanwhile, took Social Realism to a more overtly political level with works that incorporated a note of caricature. Jacob Lawrence, meanwhile, formed part of the Harlem Renaissance movement. As part of a cultural movement that did not prescribe a realist style (or any one style for that matter), Lawrence combined elements of Social Realism with abstraction in narrative works that reflected the Harlem neighborhood's collective commitment to creating visual stories of the lived African American experience and its history. By the 1940s, the rise of totalitarian governments, especially in Russia, saw Social Realism in America condemned as politically problematic. In New York especially, it would yield to the rise of Abstract Expressionism and all it came to symbolize about life in the "land of the free".

Concepts and Styles

Realism has a long legacy in painting and it is within this domain that it is (rightly) most regularly discussed. But as a concept, American Realism has extended its influence beyond the canvas and, despite the ascendency of abstract and conceptual art, it has continued to attract visual artists who are, or have become disillusioned, with the "difficulty" of avant-gardism.


Some of the earliest representations of American identity in sculpture can be attributed to Frederic Remington and his bronze Cowboy sculptures. His famous Broncho Buster (1895), for instance, was admired for its "frozen moment-in-time" rendering of a cowboy astride a bucking horse and he became well known for his small-scale works depicting the lives of frontiersmen and Native Americans. Following the Great Depression, meanwhile, some 17,000 sculptures were produced under the New Deal Works Progress Administration. Roosevelt's New Deal Recovery saw investment in public art that both provided employment for craftsmen, and cultural identity for towns and cities across the nation.

George Segal's <i>Gay Liberation</i> (1980). Segal's sculpture close to the Stonewall Inn (bar) convey a sense of urban transit and isolation.

George Segal became well-known in the early 1960s for his life-size sculptures made of orthopaedic bandages soaked in white plaster (although in his later career he was known to dabble with color). His figures were cast form friends, family members and neighbors and were often displayed in public places like street corners, public benches and tables and train stations. Associated initially with the rise of Pop Art, his sculptures overlapped the line between popular culture and fine art with his own working-class New York upbringing influencing his interest in people intersecting in public social spaces. However, his sculptures - a style he referred to as "literal Cubism" - saw him discussed as more readily as a realist. Indeed, his ghost-like characters celebrated the mundane nature of everyday urban living and often carried with them the themes of boredom and isolation. Performance artist and art theorist Allan Kaprow said of Segal's figures that "They are almost real because they have substance and a name".


With funds supplied by the Federal Art Project, the Regionalists and other artists complimented their canvas paintings with a series of murals. In total, it is estimated that these artists produced some 2,500 murals between them. The mural represented the democratization of art, freeing it from exclusive galleries, and putting art on the street ("where it belonged") for everybody to enjoy. With a background in set design giving him experience of creating art on a large scale, Thomas Hart Benton was perhaps the best-known muralist of the Regionalists. His America Today murals for the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village depicted life in different regions of the United States: the South, the Midwest, the West and New York. Even after Realism had given way to Abstract Expressionism, he went on to produce murals on the theme of the American Heartland in Chicago, Indiana, and Missouri.

<i>Independence and the Opening of the West</i> (1961). Thomas Hart Benton's mural for the Harry S. Truman Library in Missouri pleased the President who attended one day to add his touch to the painting. Scaling the scaffolding, Truman added a few strokes of blue to the prairie sky in the top right hand corner of the work. When he unveiled the work in March 1961, he told the gathered crowd that Benton was “the best muralist in the country” and that <i>Independence and the Opening of the West</i> was his best mural.

Benton was the most cosmopolitan of his peers. Having studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, he moved to France where, before his permanent return to America in 1911, he mixed with the Parisian avant-garde and this influence showed in his fluid, sculpted figures. But it was the scale and grandeur of his murals that most ignited the public imagination. The mural for the Harry S. Truman Library, for instance, was delivered in his characteristic "semi-expressionist quasi-folksy realism" (as one critic described it). Benton rued: "If I make a tiny error in an Indian's headdress [...] or a rifle, people come down on me like a ton of bricks. They never criticize the artistic quality one way or another, but the historical detail must be absolutely accurate".


Timothy O'Sullivan, <i>A Harvest of Death</i> (July 4, 1863) shows the dead on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Matthew Brady's 1862 exhibition The Dead of Antietam at his New York Gallery was the first time the realities of war were seen by the general public.

The advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century had a profound influence on art and is cited by many historians as the device that effectively liberated the artist from the "obligation" of representing the world realistically (and hence giving birth proper to modernism). In America, the first and most well-known documentary project began in 1861 when Matthew Brady, hitherto a renowned New York photographic portraitist, brought together a team, including Timothy O'Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, and George N. Barnard, to document the American Civil War. Subsequently, Sullivan, with other photographers including William Henry Jackson, began working in 1868 for the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, creating the first comprehensive conservation documentary of the American West.

Moving into the twentieth century, the combined impact of Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s led to the development of new relief programs, including providing artists and photographers with jobs in the worst affected communities. Roy Stryker, head of the Resettlement Administration (later, the Farm Security Administration) hired leading photographers including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans to introduce, as he said, "America in Americans". The project resulted in over a quarter-million images that were celebrated both as compelling portrayals of ordinary and often anonymous Americans and for their unsentimental depictions of poverty. Social Documentary became so established that it developed its own sub-genres, such as (following Lange's iconic Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)) the "Madonna and child" trope that showed a self-sacrificing mother caring for her suffering children.

The Still Life

William M Harnett's <i>The Faithful Colt</i> is a <i>trompe-l'oeil</i> - one of a series of “bachelor paintings” that were designed specifically to appeal to men living alone.

Influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch and German painters, American still lifes from the latter half of the nineteenth-century often employed the trompe-l'oeil (illusion of reality) method. These works were hung, not in galleries, but rather in business premises and taverns. Their theme was typically masculine, with the so called "bachelor still lifes" featuring images of weaponry, cash, smoking, drinking and hunting. Artists such as Raphaelle Peale, William M.Harnett, John F. Peto and John Haberle were quickly forgotten after their death; their work not given the respect accorded the best landscapists of the period. But the canvases have an important place in the history of American Realism. Although dismissed as novelties by the critics, the trompe-l'oeil paintings were very popular with the public in their time and, when they were re-evaluated by later generations, they commanded a new respect. Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s, Photorealists such as Ralph Goings and Audrey Flack produced precisely-rendered trompe-l'oeil effects in paintings that showed elements of Americana with such accuracy they were at first glance hard to distinguish from photographs.

Later Developments - After American Realism

Paul Cadmus <i>The Fleet's In!</i> (1934) is typical of the artist's stylistic combination of satire and eroticism. The painting was criticized for originating from the “sordid, depraved imagination of someone who has no conception of actual conditions in our service”.

The 1940s and 1950s saw a seismic shift in direction for American Art. The rise of Abstract Expressionism saw all forms of figuration dismissed as passe. As the political climate changed domestically and internationally, Realism suddenly seemed terribly outmoded. Abstract Expressionism was seen as a symbol of creative leadership in the fine arts that matched the political and cultural supremacy America had achieved in the Post-War years. A handful of Realists stood their ground, however. From 1943, the Magical Realists began producing paintings that were realist in style if not content. Influenced by European Surrealism and German Neue Sachlichkeit, artists such as Peter Blume, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker adopted a counter position to Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in the 1950s, led by Raphael Soyer, a group of artists including Hopper, Shahn, Bishop, Leon Kroll and Yasuo Kuniyoshi lobbied museum directors in defense of their art and championed human qualities in painting.

Norman Rockwell's, <i>The Problem We All Live With</i> (1964), became an iconic image for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Later, two artists offered a further antidote to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism: Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell. Wyeth's bleak images, which were heavily influenced by photography, took ordinal subjects and imbued them with a psychological tension. Rockwell, of course, became the nation's most popular artists and, for that "crime", was widely dismissed by critics (including the infamous Clement Greenberg) for his sentimental and nationalistic Saturday Evening Post covers. However, Rockwell, especially in his later career paintings for LOOK magazine, was given to promote "causes" such as the freedom of speech and the Civil Rights movement. In The Problem We All Live With (1964), for instance, he pictured Ruby Nell Bridges, a six year old African American girl, being escorted to her newly desegregated New Orleans school on her first day by four US Marshals. Rockwell had prepared the image by taking photographs of legs walking in order to capture the patterns of folds and creases in the pants of the Marshalls.

Ralph Goings <i>Sacramento Airport</i> (1970). Goings developed an aesthetic whereby he took personal slides, and projected the image onto a canvas to trace. His subject matter came from an array of Americana: trucks and gas stations, diners and their interiors, producing perfect paintings that looked identical to photographs.

Rockwell in fact traveled to Russia (and other European destinations) with the intent of studying Socialist Realism. There he made sketches of Russian school children which he used later for a LOOK magazine cover painted in a photo-realistic style. Indeed, Photorealism (or Hyperrealism or Super-realism) saw other 1960s artists developing a more highly polished and exaggerated style to depict real and still life. Artists such as Chuck Close, Malcolm Morley, Charles Bell, Ralph Goings and Robert Bechtle projected photographs onto canvas allowing images to be replicated with precision and accuracy. The 1960s also saw a new group of New York artists return to figuration in direct defiance to the prevailing popularity of Abstract Expressionism. Artists such as Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, Leland Bell, Nell Blaine, William Bailey and Larry Rivers all produced works that earned the label: Contemporary Realism.

In 2020, the periodical Art in America devoted an issue to the theme of "Realism and Revivalism". In his editorial, William S. Smith spoke of a "resurgence of figurative painting" that was both "pluralistic and contentious" and encompassed a cadre of young artists ranging from Jordan Casteel and Aliza Nisenbaum to Amy Sherald and Titus Kaphar. He wrote, "contemporary painting has become a vital force within the culture at large" and that "at a moment when there is widespread attention to racial inequities in the United States, figurative artists like these are representing people who have long been excluded from the canon". He adds that "If oil painting is old fashioned, that's exactly the point: the choice of medium is part of an argument about who can be represented in the most time-honored fashion". The likes of Casteel and Nisenbaum, he continued, are, "like their photographer and filmmaker peers [...] recording the profound transformation of labor conditions in the twenty-first century [and that through] its many revivals and its many guises, realism appears most vital during periods of social change".

Do Not Miss

  • The Hudson River School was a nineteenth century American art movement that celebrated the wilderness and great outdoors. The Hudson River School artists were influenced by the Romantics, using dramatic scenes of nature to express the American ideals of their time: discovery and exploration.
  • Known for its gritty urban subject matter, dark palette, and gestural brushwork, the Ashcan School set the ground for the New York avant-garde.
  • Regionalism emerged in 1930s as an alternative to the abstract and avant-garde veins of modern art. Executed in a realist style, it often depicted scenes of everyday rural life, and frequently featured allegories about land, labor, and American history.
  • Social Realism refers to a style of figurative art with social concerns - generally left-wing. Inspired in part by nineteenth-century Realism, it emerged in various forms in the twentieth century. Political radicalism prompted its emergence in 1930s America, while distaste for abstract art encouraged many in Europe to maintain the style into the 1950s.
  • Photorealism is a style of painting that was developed by such artists as Chuck Close, Audrey Flack and Richard Estes. Photorealists often utilize painting techniques to mimic the effects of photography and thus blur the line that have typically divided the two mediums.
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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"American Realism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 08 Aug 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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