Realism and Modern Realism

Artwork that attempts to reflect everyday life without artificiality


Well, it looks real… Although the term may be simple, its history is more complex. Realism originated in the mid 19th century when artists began rejecting the art conventions that governed their practice. Prior to this period, Western art only considered academic types of art as legitimate. As a result Western art was dominated by history paintings (paintings that would be conceived to document history, such as a war, a treaty, a marriage, etc…) and High Art (idealised and classical artwork influenced by ancient Greek and Roman art and the Italian Renaissance masters such as Raphael). These specific artistic conventions that dictated subject matter and style meant that art often was merely a tradition, without the capacity to reflect everyday life.

Realism was an attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, to reflect everyday life. Nowadays, the term ‘realism’ is also used generally to describe artworks painted in a realistic almost photographic way.


During the Age of Enlightenment, new ideas and theories surrounding reason and logic led to rejection of authority and conventional methods of governance and social life, and transformed the political and philosophical sphere. In line with this came the development of Realism in France, whereby artists began painting scenes from everyday life in a style that was truly representative of their subjects rather than stylised and ideal. Thus, they no longer illustrated what High Art deemed they should. It was part of a broad movement across the nineteenth century called ‘naturalism’, which saw artwork representing the world around us more closely.

French novelist Champfleury coined the term ‘Realism’ in the 1840s, applying it to describe many things including art. He often thought realism in art was best exemplified by the French painter Gustav Courbet, who painted scenes of mainstream people engaging in their normal everyday activities. This included a wide range of subjects such as peasants and working class people, scenes of city streets, cafes and public spaces. Stylistically, Courbet would paint his subjects in a very direct and frank manner. This transformation of art to something relatable to the masses created a certain shock for upper and middle classed communities that, up until the birth of Realism, were the main audience for art. Jean-Francois Millet and Honore Daumier were two other notable artists from this time period who championed this practice.

Contemporary Context:

With the development of certain Modern Art movements that leaned towards less realistic depictions of reality (such as Abstract Art), realism came to hold a new meaning and relevance as the opposite to this. Modern Realism then, is frequently used to describe any type of work that still depicts reality.

In particular, modern realism became highly relevant in the aftermath of WW1. Artists vividly captured the horrors of reality as the subject matter for their work seeking to convey the terrible events that had occurred. Differently to many avant-garde movements such as Impressionism and Fauvism, whereby the focus was on finding new artistic styles and methods to convey the reality at hand, Modern Realism emphasised subject matter. What was captured on canvas, was not necessarily a true rendering of reality at a given moment, but the subject matter did explore real life events and was conveyed realistically.

Famous Examples:

Across the world, naturalism and realism were developing through their own movements. The Neue Sachlichkeit movement in Germany was led by painters Otto Dix and Christian Schad. In France, there was a movement called Traditionisme (traditionalism), that was lead by the originally Fauve artist Andre Derain, who gave up his experimentation of colour and form to shift his focus to the importance of subject matter. In the USA, painter Edward Hopper was the most famous realist artist, capturing mundane scenes from everyday life with great emotional expression.

Gustave Courbet  Le Sommeil (The Sleepers)

Gustave CourbetLe Sommeil (The Sleepers) - 1866
Oil on canvas - 135 x 200 cm; 53 x 79 in.
Petit Palais - Paris/FR

Gustave Courbet  Burial at Ornans

Gustave CourbetBurial at Ornans - 1849-1850
Oil on canvas - 314 x 663 cm; 123.6 x 261 in.
Musee d’Orsay - Paris/FR

Jean-Francois Millet  The Gleaners

Jean-Francois MilletThe Gleaners - 1857
Oil on canvas - 83.5 x 110 cm
Musee d’Orsay - Paris/FR

Honore Daumier  Le Wagon de troisième classe (The Third-Class Carriage)

Honore DaumierLe Wagon de troisième classe (The Third-Class Carriage) - 1862
Oil on canvas - 65.4 x 90.2 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Purchased 1946 - Ottawa/CA

Otto Dix  Bildnis der Journalistin Sylvia von Harden (Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden)

Otto Dix - Bildnis der Journalistin Sylvia von Harden (Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden) - 1926
Oil and tempera on wood - 121 x 89cm 
Centre Georges Pompidou - Paris/FR

Christian Schab  Agosta, der Flügelmensch, und Rasha, die schwarze Taube (Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and RAsha, the Black Dove)

Christian SchabAgosta, der Flügelmensch, und Rasha, die schwarze Taube (Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove) - 1929
Oil on canvas - 135.3 x 95.6 x 5.0 cm
Tate, London/UK - On long-term loan from private collection since 2000

Edward Hopper  Nighthawks

Edward HopperNighthawks - 1942
Oil on canvas - 84.1 x 152.4 cm; 33 1/8 x 60 in.
Art Institute of Chicago - Chicago IL

Edward Hopper  People in the Sun

Edward HopperPeople in the Sun -1960
Oil on canvas - 102.6 x 153.4 cm; 40 ⅜ x 60 ⅜ in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum - Washington DC


Be the first to find out about new collections, exhibitions and artwork. Get exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.