The Essence of Social Realism: An Influential Art Movement

jean-françois millet, man with a hoe, social realism Jean-François Millet - Man with a Hoe. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
dorothea lange, migrant mother, social realism

Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother. Sold for $609,600 USD via Sotheby’s (May 2023).

Social Realism can be traced back to the 18th century, although it reached its peak in the early to mid-20th century. One could argue that its focus transcended place and time.

Social realism captured political, social, and economic circumstances that still feel pertinent nearly a century after the movement’s peak. As one of the world’s most significant art movements, social realism deserves a thorough unpacking. Keep reading for an examination of social realism, from its official beginnings to its lasting legacy.

The Origins of Social Realism

Social realism is widely acknowledged to have reached its peak between the two World Wars, a period marked by the profound economic hardships of the Great Depression. The destitution experienced by numerous nations during this interwar phase provided a fertile ground for the emergence of social realism.

In response to the socio-political climate of the time, artists aimed to render their subject matter accessible and comprehensible to a broad audience. Notably, the U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA) played a crucial role in funding the endeavors of American social realists during this era through the Federal Art Project.

diego rivera, entering the city, social realism

Diego Rivera – Entering in the City. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

However, social realism can ultimately be traced back to the 18th century in the U.K.,and the work of William Hogarth (1697-1764). It became more prominent in the 19th century via artists such as William Powell Frith (1819-1909) and movements such as the Pre-Raphaelites.  

Regardless of time and place, social realist artworks have consistently and prominently featured the working class .Some artists characterized their subjects as resilient champions in adversity, idealizing their endurance in the face of adversity. Others depicted these individuals as victims of society’s harsh realities, underscoring the inherent injustice of their circumstances and implicitly advocating for political reform. In both cases, social realism served as a lens through which to illuminate the intricate inequities that, owing to their complexity, the public might have found challenging to fully grasp.

Styles and Techniques Used in Social Realism 

Below are some hallmarks of social realist artworks.

    • Realistic Images with Idealized Narratives

Social realist artists departed from the 19th-century Romantic tradition by eschewing the notion of a physically idealized subject. Instead, they strove to present an authentic portrayal of their subjects, intertwining their narratives with a pronounced element of idealization. An illustrative instance is found in Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, where the photographer imbues her subject with an  heroic aura. This exemplifies the aspirational narratives that social realists aimed to infuse into the tales of marginalized communities.

    • Technical Proficiency

Viewed through the lens of technical skill, social realism was often characterised by robust draftsmanship. An exemplar of this technical prowess is evident in Honoré Daumier’s 1834 lithograph Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril, 1834. The lithograph, with its crisp lines and well-proportioned composition, reflects Daumier’s mastery in technique. 

    • Focus on the Working Classes and Naturalistic Elements

While some instances of social realist work incorporated naturalistic elements, such as seen in Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting The Gleaners, this was less prevalent than the emphasis on depicting the working classes. Urban centers, where the working class toiled and resided, often served as the backdrop for these portrayals.

    • Prioritization of Human Emotion

Central to social realism was an unwavering emphasis on human emotion. An illustrative example of this can be found in David Alfaro Siqueiros’s 1934 View of a Mural Depicting Democracy Breaking Her Chains. In this work, Siqueiros personifies democracy, rendering it as an animated being brimming with humanlike anguish. This prioritization of emotion underscores the movement’s commitment to conveying the visceral human experience within the broader socio-political context.

7 Notable Artists of Social Realism 

Below is a rundown of some influential social realist artists and a glimpse into their most impactful works of art.

1. Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957)

diego rivera, man at the crossroads fresco, social realism

Diego Rivera – Man at the Crossroads Fresco. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Diego rivera, the flower carrier, social realism

Diego Rivera – The Flower Carrier. Sold for $1,900 USD via Miami Auction Gallery (August 2015).

Beginning his formal painting career in 1907, Mexican painter Diego Rivera is especially notable for his intricate and massive murals. His primary focus was capturing the lives of the Mexican working class and showing solidarity with his home country. Examples include his 1933 fresco Man at the Crossroads and his 1935 painting The Flower Carrier.

Also notable in Rivera’s oeuvre is his 1930 painting Entering the City. Here, Rivera used a natural scene to establish the minimalist, bare-boned lives of his struggling subjects. With their contorted bodies hanging from a precarious tree, Rivera elicits empathy from his audience and further emphasizes his subjects’ helplessness.

2. Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965)

dorothea lange, hopi indian, social realism

Dorothea Lange – Hopi Indian. Sold for $37,500 USD via Christie’s (October 2010).

dorothea lange, white angel breadline, social realism

Dorothea Lange – White Angel Breadline. Sold for $445,000 USD via Sotheby’s (October 2007).

American photographer Dorothea Lange trained to become a teacher until 1913, when she realized the power of photography — and her potential to excel at it. Much of her work, which the WPA largely funded, centered around widespread economic hardship throughout the Great Depression and across the Dust Bowl. 

Despite Lange’s success, she was hesitant to call her photographs, such as Hopi Indian (1923) and White Angel Breadline (1933), works of art. Rather, her truest intent was to capture the humanity of her marginalized subjects and drive people toward social activism.

Undoubtedly the most esteemed of Lange’s photographs is Migrant Mother (1936), which features a distraught woman with children cowering at her sides. This photograph, on gelatin silver print, quickly became ubiquitous both inside and outside the broader artistic world. Its raw depiction of working-class struggle is an unmistakable emblem of social realism.

3. Honoré Daumier (1808 – 1879)

honoré daumier, le ventre législatif, social realism

Honoré Daumier – Le Ventre Législatif. Sold for $20,000 USD via Swann Auction Galleries (September 2016).

French artist and satirist Honoré Daumier began trying his hand at lithography when he was 14 years old. His art was more stylized than many of the 20th-century social realist works that followed his 19th-century output. His critique of French government corruption stands out clearly amid his expert draftsmanship. Even while dodging controversy and censorship, he produced striking prints such as his 1834 works Le ventre législatif and Le passé. Le présent. L’avenir. 

Daumier’s 1834 lithograph Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril, 1834, with its crisp lines and less exaggerated style, is a prime example of pre-20th-century social realism. The lithograph, based on a then-breaking news story about police opening fire into a civilian apartment, emphasized the atrocities of the French criminal justice system. The physical smallness of the subject illustrates his victimhood, and the peaceful expression on his face is in sharp contrast with his bloodied shirt. Through these juxtapositions, Daumier attempted to elicit political outrage.

4. Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954)

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo got her start when she was 18 years old and later married fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera. (Kahlo was also known to have had affairs with Georgia O’Keeffe, Nickolas Murray, and Leon Trotsky.) Within — and, to some extent, outside — Mexico, Kahlo is also renowned for pushing the boundaries of social realism. 

frida kahlo, my grandparents, my parents, and i, social realism

Frida Kahlo – My Grandparents, My Parents, and I. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In her paintings, Kahlo combined traditional elements of social realism with surrealism, and the result was a style called Mexican modernism. Her 1936 painting My Grandparents, My Parents, and I and 1946 painting The Wounded Deer are strong examples of this.

One of Kahlo’s most quintessentially social realist works was her 1940 painting Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. The piece, which followed her divorce from Rivera, effortlessly combines elements of realism and naturalism with jarring imagery — the blood dripping from her neck. Many art historians believe that Kahlo, standing tall alongside her pets while suffering, intended to communicate her strength in the face of hardship. These innovative depictions of struggle and triumph are in line with much of the subject matter of natural realism.

5. Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875)

jean-françois millet, the angelus, social realism

Jean-François Millet – The Angelus. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

With an impressive breadth of training beginning in Cherbourg in 1833, French painter Jean-François Millet focused his artistic efforts on capturing the mundane. Although, unlike his 20th-century realist counterparts, Millet didn’t always emphasize the hardships of the working class, he demystified their daily lives. Fascinated with the countryside in particular, he brought the French working class to life in The Angelus (1859) and Man with a Hoe (1862).

Jean François Millet - The Gleaners.

Jean François Millet – The Gleaners. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the best-known of Millet’s paintings is The Gleaners (1857), which depicts three women “gleaning” the leftover stalks of wheat after a harvest. This painting, unlike some of Millet’s other works, puts the discomfort of the working class at the forefront. With the three women’s backs hunched over and posed against a naturalistic background, the viewer can’t help but imagine the women’s discomfort.

6. Thomas Hart Benton (1889 – 1975)

While Thomas Hart Benton’s beginnings were as a cartoonist at age 17, he would later become one of America’s most influential social realists. In the 1920s, when he visited his sick father in Missouri, Benton became taken with capturing scenes of traditional American life. His art quickly began emulating his outspoken leftist politics, illustrating the struggles of the working class and implicitly calling his audiences to action. His lithographs in this style included Plowing it Under (1934) and The Woodpile (1939).

thomas hart benton, louisiana rice fields, social realism

Thomas Hart Benton – Louisiana Rice Fields. Sold for $112,500 USD via Dallas Auction Gallery (October 2016).

Benton’s 1928 painting Louisiana Rice Fields is especially striking in both its sharp draftsmanship and its perspective. The artist depicted a more zoomed-out image of working-class life than other social realists to emphasize the massive, overwhelming scale of the working classes’ labor. Benton’s human subjects appear smaller as well, emphasizing the helplessness of the American working class in the face of industrialism.

7. David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896 – 1974)

david alfaro siqueiros, view of a mural depicting democracy breaking her chains, social realism

David Alfaro Siqueiros – Mural “La Nueva Democracia”, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros was a Mexican muralist, though his politics were arguably more progressive. Siqueiros was known to be a Marxist, and his leftism is often evident in his artwork. 

By the time Siqueiros began painting frescos in 1922, he had already started organizing labor unions among artists and the working class. He motivated vast bodies of artists and laborers to demand better working and living conditions, and he was often jailed and exiled. During the 1930s, he painted especially harrowing works such as Birth of Fascism (1936) and Echo of a Scream (1937). 

Siqueiros’s 1934 mural, La Nueva Democracia, is a prime example of his stylized social realism. While he didn’t depict an actual person in this mural, the character Democracy appears human in this striking painting. At the very least, human emotions dominate her face as she struggles to break free from the chains binding her. Her nudity also represents her humanity and vulnerability — two traits that social realist artists sought to assign to their marginalized subjects.

Social Realism as Exposé 

thomas hart benton, the woodpile, social realism

Thomas Hart Benton – The Woodpile. Sold for $1,400 USD via Hindman (December 2021).

Social realist artists were very intentionally political in their artistic choices. They used themes of poverty, grueling labor, and social hardship to expose the inequities and injustices of their historical contexts. Social realism thus gave those outside marginalized groups insights into these communities’ harsh realities. 

By eliciting this empathy from their audiences, social realist artists encouraged viewers to advocate for political and socioeconomic reform. Social realism ultimately led to an increased public consciousness of social inequities and undoubtedly fueled activist movements across the globe.

The Lasting Impact of Social Realism

Honoré Daumier - Rue Transnonain.

Honoré Daumier – Rue Transnonain. Original lithograph sold for $48,000 USD via Sotheby’s (May 2007).

Although the peak of social realism in art is behind us, this movement’s impact is still observable within contemporary art. Today, artists utilize social realist tactics — depicting strong emotions; eliciting empathy; authentically capturing social inequity — to make statements about current societal injustices. 

Just as in the 18th through 20th centuries, today’s politically charged works encourage audiences to engage in activism and effect meaningful, lasting change. From evocative street art to cutting-edge, socially engaged exhibitions, the influence of social realism abounds — and is here to stay.