Off the Cuff: Let’s Get Real

Charles Shepard, President and CEO

Recently, I wrote a lengthy post about the evolution of abstract art and its place in the history of art, at least from the mid-19th century up to the beginning of the 21st century. In a few weeks, I’ll talk again about abstraction, specifically how it has both grown and changed in the last twenty years. For now, let’s put that aside, however, and talk about the fate and future of Realism, which was largely cast to the curb as abstraction increasingly basked in the limelight.

By now, you know it’s my nature to start by looking back in history to establish a context for the ideas that I will then try to illustrate. So, let’s begin by returning to the artistic achievements of the 14th century Renaissance and how the many truly extraordinary talents of that time were able to convey, so brilliantly and effectively, the real stories that they were commissioned to paint or sculpt. Their ability to use live models and infuse them with sufficient embellishments to accentuate particular physical and emotional characteristics was not attempted in earlier art. The successes of the artists of the Renaissance were due to three basics factors: 1) their seemingly superior natural talents, 2) their very specific assignments/commissions which demanded certain finished outcomes, and 3) improved apprenticeship-based training systems meant to develop artists that could satisfy the demands of these new commissions. A number of artists could be discussed who exemplify these points; but, if we just look at Michelangelo, we can begin to grasp how all this evolved. Michelangelo was born with prodigious natural talent, but he was blessed to be born in Florence where the very rich and perhaps all powerful Lorenzo de’ Medici was determined to raise the bar for the visual arts in his city. The artist that de’ Medici counted on to help him realize his dreams of Florence’s artistic superiority in the nation and in the world was Domenico Ghirlandaio, a true master with a studio staffed by some of the greatest artists in the world at that time. Michelangelo’s parents were friendly with Ghirlandaio and persuaded him to take their son, aged thirteen, under his wing. Within three years, Michelangelo was a favorite of de’ Medici and his star rose rapidly. His ascent was essentially the model for dozens of other young artists of the time and, together, they established the supremacy of the realistic style.

As the 16th century arrived, the concept of “national academies of art” emerged, first in Italy and then throughout Europe, with the basic aim to champion the now classic Realism that developed during the Renaissance. They did so by codifying its stylistic principles into a curriculum that could be used to teach future generations of artists to create works of art consistent with those standards. It was a brilliant undertaking; and it worked efficiently, with distinctly measurable results. And any artist who “measured up” was pretty much guaranteed a successful career while any who might fall short would be urged to find a different line of work. These academies had the respect and support of the ruling class, the Church, and the upper classes. The academies, essentially, ruled the art world until 1863, and successfully established artists as superior to mere craftsmen which had a dynamic effect on the marketability of their production.

Monet and his merry band of artistic misfits turned the French Academy’s world upside down with one simple exhibition in 1863.  Of the 5,000 works of art submitted to the Academy’s famous annual exhibition, over 2,000 were rejected, including works by Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, and Courbet. In protest, these five young painters and dozens of others curated a separate, competing exhibition, The Salon Des Refusés, which proved to be hugely popular. The success of this new Salon of supposedly academically inferior artists promptly called into question the judgement and authority of the Academy. The uproar started as a dispute about the Academy’s right to decide what art was good and what wasn’t, but in a heartbeat it was a direct challenge to Realism as the only valid approach to high quality art. The argument quickly called into question Realism’s failure to address realities beyond the simple object. What about perception, mood and feelings, time and atmosphere, and a number of other considerations of the immaterial? These kinds of questions caught realist artists flat-footed: their training was that realists simply paint the thing as they saw or knew it to be. Their answer was understandable given what was drilled into their artistic minds for generations; but it failed to accommodate evolving philosophical, intellectual, and perceptual thinking of the time. Monet’s experiment of observing and rendering the haystacks in his neighbor’s yard at different times of day and, thus, different conditions of light, hardly seems radical to us today. We all know that the appearance of an object or a scene can look markedly different as the light or the season changes. Consider, however, that the subject of a typical realist painter of the mid-19th century was not nature but, rather, nature as it was depicted in the best paintings on display on the walls of the Academy or in the museums. Let’s pause to let that sink in: the core belief of the art academies was that young painters learned their craft by copying the art of the great masters who went before them. Gradually, of course, an artist’s personal style would emerge, but the core concept was that reality to an academically trained artist was found on the gallery walls, not outside in nature, or in life. I noted in an earlier post that long before Monet took his easel outdoors and painted his real observations, Turner boldly redirected his gaze outward to the reality found in the world around him. The art world, more specifically the art academies, tolerated his increasingly atmospheric compositions essentially because he was originally academically trained, and because he was something of a lone gun, not the organizer of a resistance movement. Monet was truthfully more of a threat because he was part of a sizable, newly named group of similarly interested artists, the Impressionists, who together not only threatened academic Realism but methodically cast it aside as an irrelevant and outdated style in the emerging Modern era.

A painting of whalers by Turner, the tumultuous sea roils beneath boat whose white sails disappear into the background. No people are evident, but a large black spot in the foreground is probably meant to be the whale.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775-1851, Whalers. Oil on canvas, ca. 1855. Image courtesy of the Met website. Public Domain.

Modern art evolved quickly and embraced a wide variety of styles and processes, many of which were influenced by new trends in social, economic, and intellectual thinking. In this diverse mix of Modernist styles which are often referred to as “the –isms” (Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Precisionism, etc.), Realism staked a new claim. Distancing itself from both the romantic and idealistic approach of academic Realism, a new kind of Social Realist art emerged with a laser-sharp focus on the realities of the devolving agrarian culture, the rise of an industrial and urban culture, and the increasing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. This new type of realism was tougher, grittier, and specifically sought to tell the stories of the human condition. The key to this kind of realism was that the artists involved weren’t tucked away in their studios, they were directly engaged with the world around them. The artists driving this new realism included Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Theresa Bernstein, George Bellows, Gifford Beal, Edward Hopper, and numerous others. Although they never were an official group, these artists were labeled the Ashcan School for their willingness to depict the down and dirty aspects of modern life; and together, they carved out a new relevance for the Realist tradition even while the majority of museums, collectors, and gallery-goers clamored for the plethora of new abstract styles. The lifespan of this version of Realism was shorter than anyone anticipated. Wealthy American collectors never truly developed much of a taste for art that focused on issues that highlight the natural negatives of a capitalist country. By World War I, there was almost no market for Ashcan-style work as the whole world focused on that global conflict. That said, the War offered a new role to a range of Realist artists who were charged with documenting scenes from the battlefields for the folks on the home front. Most of the Ashcan School artists, along with John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Horace Pippin, Joseph Pennell, and Norman Rockwell all stepped up to use realism to tell the stories of the War.

Their work during World War I greatly expanded these artists’ audiences and created a market for their work that lasted long after its end. Storytelling, whether through individual pictures or images mass distributed through print media, became a major endeavor for an increasing number of Realist artists, even as the fine art world had eyes only for abstraction.

Therein lies the rub: the audience for realistic art grew exponentially after World War I and then the second World War because of its strength of effectively telling stories. But a distinction emerged between story-telling or story enhancing art and art that, by intention, had no such purpose. The former was exiled into the category of commercial art because it was created expressly to illustrate a topic or story. The latter—art for art’s sake—was considered more pure because it had no other agenda than to establish an aesthetic presence. This is why Jackson Pollock and his fellow Abstract Expressionists were art world heroes, while equally talented painters like N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, whose paintings and illustrations appeared in countless books and on hundreds of magazine covers, were not taken seriously as artists. Their rejection by other artists, curators, and collectors was fueled in part by Modern art’s general distaste for the realist style, and, in part, for the popular subject matter they depicted. The fact that these artists’ popularity with the American public grew exponentially despite their low standing in the art world virtually guaranteed their position.

For most of the rest of the 20th century this condition prevailed and extended beyond those artists known primarily for their work as illustrators to include still life painters, bronze casters, landscape and portrait painters—in short, almost anyone working in some version of the realist style. It was as though there were two different art worlds: the lowbrow realm which was enjoyed by common people and the highbrow realm which was meant for those on the inside track.

That said, by the end of the 20th century, this pretentious dichotomy seemed to crumble under the sheer weight of an ever growing art world. Wave after wave of art school graduates and thousands of new galleries made it difficult – if not impossible – to establish a reigning trend or style. There were suddenly too many artists working in too many different styles. There also seemed now to be a market for every style so, in many ways, the marketplace, not a handful of art critics, set the tone. Artists were free to create whatever they wished, and buyers were free to purchase whatever suited their personal tastes. Judgements of quality of craft and quality of concept were not suspended in this new pluralistic environment; they were democratized.

And what of Realism in this new environment? Realism blossomed into a variety of realist approaches including, for example, Photo Realism, Magic Realism, Contemporary Impressionism, Idealism, Naturalism, Social Realism, trompe l’oeil, and en plein aire. Within those styles, you will find sub-categories focusing on different subject matter, such as still life, people, landscapes, seascapes, and/or regions, such as Southwest, Florida Coast, Florida Keys, the West, Cape Cod, and so on. Realism, in its many forms, is arguably more robust in the 21st century than ever in its rich history. And its position in the art world is, happily, second to none.

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