Photorealism

Hyper realistic paintings which emulate photographs

Introduction:

Glance briefly and you might mistake these paintings for photographs. Photorealist artworks are indeed pretty as a picture - painstakingly detailed and skillfully crafted. They are, at their best, imperceivably different from a photographic print. But what would possess an artist to create artwork that just mirrors the job that a camera can now do so well.

History:

The art movement emerged in the United States in the late 1960s and reached its height in the 1970s. A style mostly associated with paintings (however, some artists have created photorealistic sculptures) it came about in reaction to two environmental factors.

Firstly, around the 1960’s, two art movements dominated art world tastes. Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism were in fashion and both favoured the artists’ ideas, processes and subjectivities, over interpretations of the real world. Secondly, around the same time, images began flowing profusely into people’s everyday lives as camera technology rapidly advanced. The image, as a visual representation of something or someone, began to lose its value as it flooded the mainstream and no longer had a prominent place in art. Like with Pop Art, Photorealism emerged as a reaction to this. Whilst Pop Art commented on the influx of images into our society through critique, Photorealism instead exalted the image.

The movement was first coined and defined by the American author and dealer Louis K. Meisel in 1969/1970, through five very specific criteria:

  1. The Photo-Realist uses the camera and photograph to gather information.
  2. The Photo-Realist uses a mechanical or semimechanical means to transfer the information to the canvas.
  3. The Photo-Realist must have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic.
  4. The artist must have exhibited work as a Photo-Realist by 1972 to be considered one of the central Photo-Realists.
  5. The artist must have devoted at least five years to the development and exhibition of Photo-Realist work.

A photorealist work always begins with a photograph, or multiple photographs. The artist then recreates this photograph in a different medium in a way that looks as identical as possible to the original image. Characteristics of photorealist paintings include extreme detail and precision, great clarity, emotional neutrality and often banal subject matter (landscapes, still lifes or portraits). Photorealist artists require considerable technical skill in order to create realistic lighting, reflections, or mirrored effects.

Famous examples:

The first generation of Photorealist artists included John Baeder, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Chuck Close, Charles Bell, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, Robert Bechtle, and Tom Blackwell - whom were all American. The movement spread to Europe, where artists such as Franz Gertsch, Clive Head, Raphaella Spence, Bertrand Meniel, Roberto Bernardi, Mike Gorman, and Eric Scott, experimented with the art genre.

Contemporary Context:

After its height in the 1970s, the movement died down and many artists who led it moved onto experimenting with different styles and genres. With an increase in technological development, Photorealism saw a new wave of popularity in the 1990s. While the strict 5-rule definition no longer applies, many artists continue to employ the movement’s principles, emulating photographs through a different artistic medium such as paint, graphic media or drawing. Some contemporary artists include: Mike Bayne, Hilo Chen, Randy Dudley, Franz Gertsch, Gottfried Helnwein, Don Jacot, Kim Mendenhall, Robert Neffson, Jerry Ott, and Idelle Weber

John Baeder (b. 1938)  John’s Diner with John’s Chevelle

John Baeder (b. 1938) - John’s Diner with John’s Chevelle - 2007
Oil on canvas - 121.92 x 76.2 cm; 30 x 48 in.
Courtesy of the Artist

Richard Estes (b. 1932)  Telephone Booths

Richard Estes (b. 1932) - Telephone Booths - 1967
Acrylic on masonite - 122 x 175.3 cm
Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid/ES

Charles Bell (1935-1995)  Gum Ball No. 10: “Sugar Daddy”

Charles Bell (1935-1995) - Gum Ball No. 10: “Sugar Daddy” - 1975
Oil on canvas - 167.6 x 167.6 cm; 66 x 66 in.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York NY
Purchased with funds contributed by Stanley and Sheila Cooper, 1975
© Estate of Charles Bell

Chuck Close (b. 1940)  Stanley II

Chuck Close (b. 1940) - Stanley II - 1980-81
Oil on canvas - 274.3 x 213.4 cm; 108 x 84 in.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York NY
Purchased with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Barrie M. Damson, 1981
© Chuck Close, courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York

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