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Explore works of visual art and literature made in the style of 19th century realism.

Learn about key painters and authors who aimed at creating realistic depictions of the world through their art.

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Realist art presents us with a paradox, a conflict between what your senses perceive and what an aesthetic work of art can possibly depict. A window gives us a presentation onto the world. A frame or canvas, on the other hand, is a representation or a re-presentation of the world from the point of view of the artist.Artists who adopt a Realist aesthetic presume to depict the world as seen through the window.

Paradoxically, then, Realist art can only ever be a subjective depiction on the canvas. The artist’s way of seeing mediates the viewer’s outlook on the world.Realism was a 19th century art movement in both painting and literature, in which artists sought to depict the world as seen through a window, focusing on ordinary and unflattering situations.

Response to Romanticism

Realist art was a reaction to the earlier movement of Romanticism. Romantic artists valued subjectivity and tended to idealize their portrayals. Their paintings featured busty nudes, classical or mythological settings, and royal decoration. Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) characteristically features the lone artist gazing upon the world, beckoning the viewer to look up the scene as the artist has. This painting conveys the artist’s subjectivity.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

In response, a trend in Realism sought to portray the world as it was, the social reality of everyday life. As a result, Realist art tends to feature ugliness as opposed to beauty. Distinct from the earlier Romantic art that set its scenes in a mythological or historical past, Realist art framed the contemporary moment. Realist art gravitated toward the harsh circumstances of poverty and the social conditions of the working class.

Courbet’s Laborers and Vagabonds

In painting, French artist Gustave Courbet is associated with the Realist style. His paintings feature laborers, travelers, and vagabonds.Considering Courbet as the quintessential Realist artist makes visible two aspects of the movement. On the one hand, realism referred to the depiction of everyday situations. On the other, the Realist aesthetic stripped the beauty of Romanticism away.

Courbet portrayed his figures with simplicity: unadorned, crude. Realist art highlighted the common man, and poverty was a frequent theme.The Third Class Carriage (1864) for example, by Honore Daumier, provides us with a depiction of the lower class in an everyday setting.

The painting is not particularly realistic in aesthetic, but it is Realist in social context for its portrayal of a contemporary, everyday situation.

The Third Class Carriage

Similarly, Thomas Kennington’s The Homeless (1890) provides us with a window onto urban destitution. Unlike Daumier’s stark aesthetic, this urban scene strikes us with the detail of the boy’s face and the atmosphere of London fog, so dense you can almost smell it.

The Homeless

Realism and Naturalism

Sometimes art critics, theorists, and historians use the term Naturalism as a replacement for Realism. Naturalism refers to the style of accurately depicting a scene according to its real-world appearance as opposed to the aesthetic of illusionism as we saw in the style of Romantic subjectivity. Realism and Naturalism are sometimes used synonymously, but in art history, these terms refer to distinct art movements. An offshoot of the Realist art movement, the 19th century art movement of Naturalism specialized in depictions of landscapes and natural settings. Naturalism retained the detailed aesthetics we saw in the work of Kennington, but veered toward the depiction of landscapes and natural settings, distinct from the preoccupations of social conditions in Realist art.

Realism provides us with a conundrum when using the category of reality to describe a work of art. Returning to the window-frame analogy, Realism suggests that there is an objective world out there that exists separate from the observer. It’s the same question as the well-known if a tree falls in the woods scenario. If there isn’t an observer around to see it, does the world still exist? Realist painting situates the artist between the viewer and the world, negating the possibility of an objective view.Using the term ‘Naturalism’ sidesteps this conundrum.

Instead of assuming that the picture shows us an objective presentation, a realistic depiction of the world, we can now frame the discussion as the Naturalistic depiction of the look of objects.

Realism in Literature

In literature, Realism manifested in the urge to portray the world as it was, in contemporary settings characterized by their ordinariness. In the 19th century, literary Realism was strongest in France and Russia, most notably in the work of Flaubert and Chekov.Similar to the Realist movement in painting, literary Realism conveyed Naturalism in both style and content. Realist novels featured everyday characters and settings, as opposed to the heightened events of adventure novels, the morality of fairy tales, or the symbolism of satire, for example. Rejecting the classical conventions of tragedy and comedy, Realist novels veer toward the average and commonplace.However, as with the Realist conundrum in painting, the Realist novel employs verisimilitude, which can be described as an effect that invokes the likeness or appearance of reality.

Instead of assuming that the novel can present the real world like a diary or a travelogue, literary Realism conveys a naturalistic effect while maintaining a plot and story structure.Notably, British novelist Henry James pioneered the form of the psychological novel, which blended the subjectivity of the characters with their realistic depiction. But in an attempt to render life as it is, the subjectivity of the psychological novel blends with the aim of Realism to complicate and distort the depiction of reality. Realism begs the question of how an art form can truly convey an objective representation of the world. This is why social context has been so important to Realist art movements. Realist art importantly rejects the traditional assumptions and aspirations of high art, bringing the aesthetic and subject matter back to the ground level, accessible to the common man.

Lesson Summary

In the 19th century, a movement of artists adopted a Realist style, rejecting the classical settings, subjective views, and idealization of Romanticism to, instead, shine a light on the contemporary, everyday situations of the working class life. Examples can be found in both painting and literature, predominantly in the work of Gustave Courbet and Henry James. These works spanned the century, evolving into Naturalism in the arts, and the psychological novel in literature.Naturalism can be used synonymously with Realism, and it clears up the ambiguity in referring to works of art by their objective qualities. Realist art can be defined by both its style and content.

Aesthetically, Realist art aims to depict the world as it is, which manifests in a range of styles. Realist art is easier to identify by its content, which largely features working class settings, travelers, vagabonds, and themes of poverty.

Learning Outcomes

As you begin this lesson, plan to retain enough information to:

  • Recollect the definition of realism
  • Note the characteristics of Romantic art
  • Discuss Courbet and the images featured in his paintings
  • Compare realism to naturalism
  • Provide examples of literary authors who utilized realism in their works

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