Accessing American Realism 

Edward Hopper - Hotel Window. Edward Hopper - Hotel Window. Est: $10,000,000 USD - $15,000,000 USD via Sotheby's (November 2006).

The masterful artists of American Realism had an uncanny ability to capture universally relatable aspects of modern life. Transforming the artistic conversations in the United States from the late 19th century onward, this network produced some of the most iconic paintings in American art history. In this article, we’ll offer a brief overview of the advent of American Realism and offer some examples of the movement’s most indelible paintings. 

The Reality of Painting

For much of European art’s history, the subjects shown are of another world, whether from a religious, historical, or mythological narrative. Around 1850, though, European artists pushed beyond such a fantastical realm into everyday scenes so viewers could sense the palpable energy and the challenge to survive in the contemporary world. French artist Gustave Courbet pioneered this shift of focus. In The Stonebreakers (1849) and Burial at Ornans (1850), Courbet confronted the art world with paintings that replaced picture-perfect idols with real individuals in commonplace settings. Whether showcasing the working lower classes or exalting the day-to-day lifestyle enjoyed by average French citizens, Courbet’s paintings created a new space for art that could celebrate all walks of life, not just the super-rich. 

American artists soon took note of this approach and began to explore the potential of Realist painting within the context of American life. From scenes of bustling shopping centers to pulsating urban cores, the painters of American Realism quickly grasped that modern painting could exalt new subjects beyond the traditional ones often celebrated. At the same time, American Realists worked to understand the loosened, gestural nuances of European painterly technique that had emerged over the second half of the 19th century. This energized new technique combined with the dynamic new subject of Realism to supercharge American painting from the end of the 19th century well into the 20th century. 

Acclaimed American Realist Paintings 

To illustrate how this American Realist revolution took place visually, let’s take a closer look at some of the most influential works associated with the era’s most significant talents. 

Thomas Eakins’ Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (1875)

Thomas Eakins’ Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (1875)

Thomas Eakins’ Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (1875)

A pioneer of American Realism, Thomas Eakins trained in Paris and thus was steeped in modernist trends taking hold in the studios of the Impressionists and others. Seeking to spark a similar sense in his works once back in Philadelphia, where he split his time between painting and teaching at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Eakins diverged from his American contemporaries by embracing scenes from contemporary life. From subdued compositions of rowers on the Schuylkill River to contemplative portraits more introspective than idealized, Eakins’ work showcased the potential for American Realism for a new generation.

One such exemplary work is Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (also known as The Gross Clinic). Here Eakins showcases a renowned surgeon during an anatomy lesson at Jefferson Medical College. As the students observe, Dr. Gross appears illuminated as he offers his insights on the procedure at hand, but Eakins does not glorify his likeness. Rather, he aimed to depict Dr. Gross as a learned man of science in a landmark celebration of intellect rather than elitism.

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Robert Henri’s Snow in New York (1902)

Robert Henri’s Snow in New York (1902)

Robert Henri – Snow in New York (1902)

Following the legacy of painters like Eakins, Robert Henri carried the conversation of American Realism forward in the early 20th century by investigating urban life’s visceral realities. Using gritty street scenes and boisterous cityscapes as his main subjects, Henri incorporated all social strata in his paintings to both give them a sense of authenticity while also distancing them from the elite nature of subject matter scene in artistic generations prior. This turn can be seen in Snow in New York, a work that relays the real implications of winter weather. 

In this painting, a darkened palette conveys not a magical atmosphere of fresh fallen snow but rather the realities of a snowstorm’s aftermath: deep, gray grooves in the street allude to the icy slush that lingers throughout the winter, and the muted sky suggests a setting winter sun behind an impenetrable blanket of clouds. With a mood decidedly melancholic, Henri synthesizes the drain of winter that can ensue. This style, with its dull palette and focus on contemporary urban life, would be central to the Ashcan School.

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George Bellows’ Stag at Sharky’s (1909)

George Bellows’ Stag at Sharky’s (1909)

George Bellows – Stag at Sharky’s (1909)

Alongside Henri, George Bellows was included among the Ashcan School, a loose collective of artists focused on American Realist themes. Using New York City as his muse, Bellows developed a style that showcased the modern American metropolis, from its flaws and inequities to its triumphal entertainment. The latter can be seen in Stag at Sharkey’s, a dynamic and strikingly colorful composition showcasing boxers in the ring at Sharkey’s Athletic Club. 

“Stags,” as the title notes, referred to boxers that weren’t club members and perhaps were used by Bellows because such boxing and wrestling matches were technically illegal at the time. The illicit nature of this activity only heightens the drama of the scene that Bellows offers: two men, fighting viciously, consume the center of the painting in bright light while the sea of humanity surrounding them and egging them on become almost a blur around them. In choosing this subject, Bellows perhaps was reflecting metaphorically on the fight for survival, but he also critiqued contemporary culture in that, despite its proposed refinements, it still finds pleasure in base violence. 

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William Glackens’ At Mouquin’s (1905)

William Glackens’ At Mouquin’s (1905)

William Glackens – At Mouquin’s (1905)

Perhaps most influenced by the Impressionist painting technique among his contemporaries, William Glackens similarly used the space of his compositions to examine contemporary life. A prime example of such an investigation is At Mouquin’s, which at first might seem like a conventional portrait of years past. Just off center appears James and Edith Moore as they enjoy a cocktail at the popular New York eatery Mouquin’s. 

A closer look, though, reveals that Glackens seemingly has caught this couple off-guard. They look out of the composition, and while James seems to be making merry, Edith looks rather exhausted, perhaps sensing a bit of tedium in another visit to one of their frequent haunts. This subtle variation shifts the entire sensation of the scene: rather than getting  a sense of the splendid indulgences of aristocratic New Yorker life, Glackens here gives a taste of how lonely or empty it can be. 

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Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929)

Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929)

Edward Hopper – Chop Suey (1929)

Carrying the ideas of American Realism into the second half of the 20th century, Edward Hopper consistently sought to use the space of his paintings to examine the modern American experience. Many of these scenes were set in bustling city centers, but the specific locations were perhaps at times unexpected to give his paintings a banality of the everyday. Such can be seen in Chop Suey, where the viewer peeks in on two women dining in a Chinese restaurant. 

Stocking the scene with queues that help the viewer recall the sights and sounds typical of dining, Hopper also conveys a sense of quietude that points to an alienated or lonely sense. The two women sit at the same table, but they seem disconnected, particularly since the woman in green on the opposite side of the table appears to look out at her audience, not at her dining companion. This disconnect, which is furthered by the implied distance Hopper creates between adjacent tables, recalls the theme common in many of Hopper’s paintings to stress sensations of social isolation.

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The Revolution of American Realism

While the artists of American Realism were responding to rising modernist trends in Europe, they nevertheless pushed Realist expression to new heights by using the approach to document and critique the modern American experience. It is perhaps thanks to this revolutionary quality that these artists are some of the most collectible today. As one example: Hopper’s Chop Suey set a new record for his paintings in 2018 when it sold at a Christie’s New York auction for more than $98 million. Don’t let such hefty price tags dissuade your research into American Realist artists, as there are many more talents associated with the tradition at various price points that still capture such striking authenticity of the American experience during this era.