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David and Art - The Reality Behind Realism

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Showing Americans what their modern urban landscape really looked like became the mission of the Realists.

Last week we talked about the Realists—a group of artists working in the United States in the tail end of the 19th century. I like the Realists a lot and I like them for two reasons: Number one, I like their work. I like the art they produced. Number two, I like them because they show how art can lead to a broader understanding of history and society itself.

Now, art doesn’t have to justify itself; it doesn’t have to serve any purpose larger than itself. Art is art and that’s all it needs to be. But with the Realists, you get an example of how art can also be a purposeful mirror in which society can be forced to see itself. Warts and all.

Realist painters refused to paint idyllic country scenes or ones that had little connection to the modern world. Philadelphia native Thomas Eakins was like this. Eakins turned his considerable talent to painting things like what went on in modern medical schools. It shocked traditionalists. His carefully accurate 1875 painting of a surgical classroom in the Jefferson Medical College horrified respectable Philadelphia. Because of its graphic nature, it was rejected for display at the Philadelphia Centennial Expo of 1876.

Eakins also painted scenes of baseball players and boxers, something almost as controversial as his surgical paintings. “Serious artists just didn’t paint those things,” says Kathleen Foster, Curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Athletes and the sports they played weren’t considered proper subject matter.” But for a Realist, that’s what he had to portray.

Another key realist is the Denmark-born Jacob Riis. Riis became a master of the newest artistic medium of the day—photography. He took his camera to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and documented what he saw. He took beautifully framed photographs of what life really looked like for those trapped in the slums: those about whom Stephen Crane wrote; those working in the sweatshop factories. His photographs of immigrants packed into a small tenement room or of children huddling over a grate in the street for a little bit of warmth are arresting even to the modern eye for their frankness.

Valerie Minogue, a prominent scholar of French realist Emile Zola (of whom we have talked before) once explained that “Like the scientist who examines his material, however ugly, in order to analyze and heal, so the novelist would observe and accurately represent social ills in the hope that they might be remedied.” That was one of the deepest motivations for Realists like Stephen Crane and Jacob Riis. And it was their art that laid the foundation for reform movements that emerged in the new century.