Realism (art)

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Gustave Courbet: The Stone Knocker (1849)

Realism (from the Latin realis “ concerning the matter”; res: “thing, thing”) describes in art history a new conception of art that began in Europe in the middle of the 19th century and turned against representations of classicism and romanticism .

Realism in 19th century French painting

The artist's appropriation of reality and its subsequent transformation into a work of art as well as its political connotation are characteristic of realism. She propagates everydayness and objectivity.

Its best-known representative was the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), who appropriated the then very vaguely and imprecisely defined concept of realistic art and used it for his art because of its provocative effect. The content of his works influenced the concept of realism. Courbet's main concern was to create living art based on the knowledge of (artistic) tradition and his own individuality.

Containment and precursors

The term realism is used strictly contextually and is therefore meaningful. Difficulties in using the terms realistic and realism arise from their ambiguity. On the one hand, this art-historical term describes an art movement of the 19th century that was dedicated to everyday life and society and was politically motivated, which is why social conditions and their contradictions and conflicts are often topics of realistic images.

On the other hand, following the general meaning of the word, it can be described as “realistic”, which is extremely close to the object, topic or idea presented. It can be taken to be true in appearance. “Realistic” tendencies can therefore already be observed in earlier works of art. So was z. B. Albrecht Dürer's watercolor Young Brown Hare (1502) perceived in its depiction as so “likely”, so lifelike that the hare could be considered real and alive. This example is intended to make it clear that a true-to-life representation is no guarantee for a realistic image in the sense of the art-historical definition. In addition, reference is made to reality in every artistic form of expression. This reference happens differently and thus borders among other things. a. the individual currents of realism such as New Realism, Fantastic Realism or Photo Realism. Only the representation of reality as the artist sees it or wants to show it is therefore not decisive in classifying art as “realism”.

Systematic concept of realism

The art form of realism strives to reveal how it really is through the representation of the objective world without refinement. The way of representation can be "offensive" and is not necessarily mimetic (imitating nature).

The naturalism borders u. a. in its mode of representation through orientation to external nature. According to the art historian Klaus Herding, a realistic work of art should not only have an "informative [...], but transformative and enlightening effect" on the respective reality. Accordingly, a realistic work of art does not simply reflect the real world, but rather clarifies the reality of an idea or a conception. The political dimension of realism needs to be emphasized. Since the emergence of French realism in the 19th century, this art form has been associated with democratic and republican tendencies. It was not least through Courbet that realism received its political significance.

Realistic art cannot be recognized by certain representational or process-specific characteristics / properties. Rather, it follows from the connection between the (political) intention of the artist and the reception (social acceptance and "reading") of the work.

According to the philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes , who actually applies his concept of realism to literature , reality is the result of an artistic work. This effect of the real can only be obtained through staging. Many details are included in stories or paintings that are unimportant for the plot and go beyond the usual scope of the description of the milieu. The inclusion of unimportant, superfluous details implies that the things depicted happened this way and not otherwise - reality is reproduced without any omissions. These "useless" details can be seen as narrative luxury, as they have to be skilfully integrated into the narrative or the painting. In order not to be seen as a clumsy list or list by the recipient, the artist needs a special skill.

The reality effect can be understood as the suppression of allegories from the visual arts, which nevertheless conveys a metaphorical content. In the case of works of realistic art, the summation of facts in the picture that was used for the effect of reality was therefore often criticized.

The philologist Roman Jakobson defines the term realism in an essay from 1921 on the one hand as “an art movement with the goal of reproducing reality as unadulterated as possible by striving for a maximum of probability” - which corresponds to the systematic term - but also as “the sum characteristic features of a certain art movement of the 19th century ”. The latter can be assigned to the historical concept of realism.

Jakobson makes clear that the concept of realism depends not only on the artist's intention, who conceives his work as likely, but also strongly on the viewer's individual perception in the historical context:

“A contemporary judge will see realism in Delacroix , but not in Delaroche , El Greco and Andrej Rublev, but not in Guido Reni , the Scythian farmer's wife, but not in Laocoon . An academy student of the previous century would have judged exactly the opposite. "

Realism as a historical style

Throughout history, various art movements have been referred to as "realism" or "realistic". Roman Jakobson aptly formulated in 1921 that “the real” is not the reference for realistic art, but rather those constructs that direct the historical, changing understanding of reality. Accordingly, as already mentioned, the context of the word usage must be taken into account.

In contrast to the usual use of the term realism in the Middle Ages, which was linked to the philosophical debate on the universal dispute , the term has acquired a more precise contour compared to idealism in modern times . At that time, the term realism, as it was understood in the sense of the mimetic imitation of nature, was rated negatively. “The word realism has been in use as an aesthetic and poetological term since the 1890s; it denotes the world reference of modern, differentiated art and replaces the old European category of 'imitation', which is devalued as a copying formula. ”The art potential of realistic works was thus denied. It was not until later, in the middle of the 19th century, that the art movement was to become more positive.

French realism in the 19th century

Gustave Courbet: A Burial at Ornans (1850)
J.-F. Millet: The Man with the Hoe (1861–1862)

The concept of realism, which has been demonstrable in literary criticism as an antithesis to classicism since 1821, was only transferred to the visual arts in the 1850s. Realism was prepared in France by Théodore Géricault . From the mid-19th century, the term realism was used programmatically in France. Spokesmen are u. a. the writers and art critics Jules Champfleury and Edmond Duranty . They defend realism as a positive representation of modern society. In doing so, they turn against the classicistic and romantic standardization of the beautiful in idealistic academic art and express an interest in the living conditions of the lower class. Both are concerned with an art of truth that has a political dimension - originated from the opposition to Napoleon III. - includes in its definition.

The French painter Gustave Courbet is considered the "face" of realism. For him, realism is an essentially democratic art, which includes the “denial of the ideal” and the “self-liberation of the individual”. This may also explain his claim to create art that is understandable and not only revealing its content to the educated elite. Courbet began his artistic career with portraits, including several self-portraits in medieval costume. A little later, however, he rejected everything that he called the "plaster of romance". He writes that, similar to how the term “romantic” was imposed on the “men of 1830”, he would have been called a realist after the exhibition of his first major work, A Burial in Ornans . When it was declined to show some of his works at the Paris World's Fair in 1855 , Courbet opened his own pavilion - the Pavillon du Réalisme. In his Manifesto of Realism he writes:

“I studied the art of the ancient and the modern without a system and without prejudice. I neither wanted to imitate the one nor copy the other; even less was my goal a trivial> l´art pour l´art <No! I just wanted to draw the deliberate and independent awareness of my own individuality from my complete familiarity with tradition. Knowing and understanding in order to be creative - that was my idea. To be able to translate the customs, thoughts, and appearances of my epoch according to my own judgment; To be not just a painter, but also a person; in short, to create a living art - that was my goal. "

Gustave Courbet: The Corn Sifters (1854)

In addition to Courbet, who primarily devoted himself to members of the rural middle class and the working class in his pictures - whereby Die Steineklopfer and Die Kornsieberinnen in particular can be seen as socially critical - Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) also worked with such critical pictorial subjects. Many depictions of farm workers and the dispossessed are part of his oeuvre. He vehemently opposed the socialist interpretation of his man with a hoe from 1852 to 1862. Millet, who himself was the son of a well-to-do farmer and studied art as Delaroche's favorite pupil in Paris, joined a group of naturalistic landscape painters - the Barbizon School - in 1849 .

Eugène Delacroix is on the one hand committed to realism, but because of their sometimes shocking subjects, his works point beyond the style of the epoch. Because of his bold use of color, he can be considered a pioneer of impressionism.

In addition to Courbet and Millet, Constant Troyon and Charles-François Daubigny can also be described as realists in the art-historical sense.

German realism in the 19th century

Wilhelm Leibl: Portrait of a Young Woman
Hans Thoma: Self-Portrait (1871)

Realism in Germany was prepared by painters like Carl Blechen . Adolph Menzel is considered to be the most important German representative of realism. In addition to realistic historical works, he raised the reality of different social classes as in the "Eisenwalzwerk" (1875) to the subject of the picture. After 1848 in Germany , painters like Ludwig Knaus or Franz von Defregger were also called realists. Their understanding of art was close to the parallel civil realism in German literature . It was sharply demarcated by contemporary art criticism and aesthetics from French realism in the style of Courbet and rather viewed as an adequate answer to the realism criticism of German idealism . More clearly influenced by Courbet, however, were the Munich realists around Wilhelm Leibl , the so-called Leibl Circle . Individual works by Hans Thoma , a symbolist , can also be assigned to realism.

The more and more frequent depictions of rural life meant that the light and color design of open-air painting ( plein airism ) gradually gained acceptance. Leibl's later works lead not only to naturalism , but also to impressionism , to which many of Menzel's works refer even more clearly.

Criticism of realism

Thomas Couture: The Realist (1865)

The writer and poet Friedrich Schiller , for example, expressed criticism . "If [the poet / artist] stays with reality ..." he becomes "realistic and, if he is completely lacking in imagination, mean." Schiller's criticism of a mimetic reference to the world is based on the prevailing notion at the time that the Antiquity could still be experienced, has disappeared into modern reality. The mimesis critique follows from this notion that the present is not “beautiful” like antiquity and should therefore not be represented exactly.

Based on the Platonic critique of mimesis, the idea that art should not be a mere representation but a transformation of reality had already solidified in the second half of the 18th century. In the Hegelian aesthetic, too, the mimetic copy was devalued as a craftsmanship that had no claim to its own artistic value. For Schiller's contemporaries, it was much more important to return the escaped beauty to the real. They called for a combination of idealism and realism. Art that is described as realistic is seen as the opposite of “beautiful art” or “aesthetic synthesis”. The program of realism "carries all the features of the epochal debate about the contrast between ancient and modern, naive and sentimentalistic classical and romantic art".

Even Goethe , who at least admitted to being receptive to the realistic "tick" of his epoch, used the term realism in relation to the visual arts not only approvingly. He writes: "Real art has an ideal origin and an ideal direction, it has a real foundation, but it is not realistic."

The caricature The Realist by Thomas Couture from 1865 illustrates the 'recognition' given to realistic artists. Couture depicts a painter who uses the antique head bust as a stool and instead depicts a pig's head. His hat and pipes identify him as a member of the Bohème, but the bottle on the floor as a drunkard. The realist is a pig painter, so the message of this caricature can be understood.

In his work The Happy Science , Friedrich Nietzsches writes about the realistic painter: “In the end he paints from what he likes. / And what does he like? What he can paint! ”Here again the polemic against the artists of realism becomes clear, whose abilities are questioned.

The pejorative comparison of realistic art with daguerreotypes , the earliest form of photography , was also widespread . The common point of criticism was above all the idea that photographs could reproduce an objective and mimetically accurate image of the world. In this sense, photography's claim to art has long been discussed and questioned. Apparently every little detail was captured with the camera. In 1841 Rodolphe Töpffler wrote that the abundance of reality in photography hinders the recognition of an object.

Differences in meaning between the foreground and background were difficult to make out. At the same time, the photographic portraits showed the sitters, regardless of which social class they belonged to, with the same dignity. As a result, photography, like realism, was perceived as democratic, with photography not having any political motivation.

It is important to emphasize how much the criticism of mere imitation in particular misses the concept and actual execution of realistic art. Rather, this kind of criticism could be applied to naturalism. Perhaps this also shows how much the realists and their program were misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted.

Photography in the realism debate

The criticism of early photography , which essentially coincided with the criticism of realism, indicates that photography itself was viewed as realistic. Ronald Berg even describes it as an "icon of the real". He notes, for example, that since the renaissance painting has striven for the correct perspective and thus the ideal of the “realistic” (in the sense of naturalistic) reproduction of the world was pursued. Based on the idea that the photographic image is the product of the natural power of light in interaction with the reaction of chemicals, photography was considered a realistic medium. One of the 'fathers' of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot , wrote in 1844: “The plates of the present work are impressed by Nature's hand. According to this, the picture is neither the direct work of a person nor a mechanical process, but rather through the natural power and activity of light. Due to the fact that the photographic image is subject to the objective laws of geometrical optics, Talbot sees it as 'correct' and true.

History and tendencies of realism

New Objectivity

In 1925 the Kunsthalle Mannheim exhibited works by 32 artists under the title “ Neue Sachlichkeit ”. The pictures were characterized by an over-sharpness in the representation of objects and figures. This painting, created after the First World War , was also referred to as “ magical realism ”. This wants to portray everyday reality that is critical of society. Another exhibition under the same title in 1961 in the Haus am Waldsee in Berlin made the term a generic name. Well-known representatives of the "New Objectivity" were Otto Dix , Karl Hubbuch , Georg Schrimpf , Richard Oelze and Christian Schad . Further representatives are u. a. George Grosz , Eugen Hoffmann , and Käthe Kollwitz .

American scene

An approach of realistic painting in the USA of the 1920s and 1930s, also known as American Realism , aimed to capture the American way of life as realistically as possible. This painting also explicitly distinguished itself from the tendencies of European art modernism and is considered to be one of the first independent styles in American art. Its representatives include Edward Hopper , Georgia O'Keeffe , Charles Sheeler and Grant Wood .

Socialist realism

Vladimir Gawrilowitsch Krichatzkij: The first tractor

In the Soviet Union after 1930, painting was placed in the service of Stalinist social theory . In a similar form, art in the GDR was also subjected to the concept of class struggle derived from historical materialism , since the state and the party were the main clients and a free art market practically did not exist. The term was justified primarily due to the choice of topics from the everyday life of workers and farmers. The aim was to achieve greater monumentality by simplifying the color areas and outlines. Important representatives of Russian and German socialist realism were Alexander Michailowitsch Gerassimow , Alexander Alexandrowitsch Deineka and Willi Sitte .

New realism

New Realism was a counter-movement to Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel that developed in the late 1950s . He first found his new forms of expression in action art , happenings , fluxus and object art . With his turn to everyday things in life, he anticipated some elements of Pop Art . The main representatives of the movement are the artists of the Nouveau Réalisme group . From a formal point of view, the merging of traditional pictorial means of painting with stylistic devices of photography (bleed, cut-out, wide angle, color cast etc.) was new, which led to a revitalization of the medium of panel painting .

Probably the most important manifestation of New Realism in Germany was the group ZEBRA , which was formed in the 1960s . It included the painters Dieter Asmus , Peter Nagel , Dietmar Ullrich and Nikolaus Störtenbecker as well as the sculptors Karlheinz Biederbick and Christa Biederbick . Other representatives of New Realism in Germany are Norbert Bisky , Heiner Altmeppen , Bernd Schwering , Hannes Rosenow and Fritz Koch . In the process, works were often made with the intention of making political statements: artists such as Siegfried Neuenhausen used new, realistic art to denounce social conditions such as war, dictatorship, inequality and intolerance.


The photorealism designated an equally acting in the North America and Europe style after the Pop Art emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and the display options of Photography transferred into the large-format canvas painting. Photo-realist artists include Robert Bechtle , Chuck Close , Richard Estes , Franz Gertsch , Ralph Goings and Philip Pearlstein .

21st Century Trends

Since the beginning of the 21st century, new realistic tendencies have become increasingly noticeable in German painting.

Based on the old " Leipzig School " of GDR art around the painters Bernhard Heisig , Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke , they are exemplified as the so-called " New Leipzig School " by the teachers at the Leipzig University of Graphics and Book Art (HGB) or trained artists Arno Rink , Neo Rauch , Tim Eitel , Aris Kalaizis , Tilo Baumgärtel and Mathias Perlet .

The Künstleronderbund in Deutschland e. V. for realism of the present, to which some realistically working artists belong.


  • Arnim rainbow, Uwe Meyer: Dictionary of philosophical terms. Meiner, Hamburg 2005.
  • Boris Röhrl: Art Theory of Naturalism and Realism. Historical development, terminology and definitions . Georg Olms, Hildesheim, Zurich and New York 2003, ISBN 3-487-11822-X .

Web links

Commons : Realism  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. See Roland Barthes: The noise of language (= critical essays . Volume 4). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2006, pp. 171ff.
  2. See Horst Bredekamp: Theory of the image act . Berlin 2010, p. 44.
  3. ^ Ulrich Pfisterer (Ed.): Metzler-Lexikon Kunstwissenschaft. Ideas, methods , terms. 2nd Edition. Stuttgart 2011, p. 372.
  4. Cf. Ulrich Pfisterer (Ed.): Metzler-Lexikon Kunstwissenschaft. Ideas, methods , terms. 2nd Edition. Stuttgart 2011, p. 372.
  5. See Roland Barthes: The noise of language (= critical essays . Volume 4). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2006, p. 166.
  6. Roman Jakobson: About Realism in Art (1921) . In: Alternative - Journal for Literature and Discussion , Volume 12, Issue 65 (1969), pp. 75ff.
  7. Cf. Roman Jakobson: On Realism in Art (1921). In: Alternative - Journal for Literature and Discussion, Volume 12, Issue 65 (1969), p. 78.
  8. See Joachim Ritter, Karlfried founder, Gottfried Gabriel (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy . Volume 8, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1986, p. 175.
  9. See Joachim Ritter, Karlfried founder, Gottfried Gabriel (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy . Volume 8, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1986, p. 190.
  10. Joachim Ritter, Karlfried founder, Gottfried Gabriel (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy . Volume 8, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1986, p. 170.
  11. ^ Dario Villanueva: Theories of Literary Realism. State University of New York Press, 1997, p. 17.
  12. See Joachim Ritter, Karlfried founder, Gottfried Gabriel (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy . Volume 8, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1986, p. 171.
  13. See Hugh Honor, John Flemming: Weltgeschichte der Kunst . Munich 1999, p. 502.
  14. See Hugh Honor, John Flemming: Weltgeschichte der Kunst . Munich 1999, p. 502.
  15. Hugh Honor, John Flemming: World History of Art. Munich 1999, p. 502.
  16. Joachim Ritter, Karlfried founder, Gottfried Gabriel (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy . Volume 8, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1986, p. 170.
  17. Cf. Gerhard Plumpe: The dead look. On the discourse of photography in the age of realism . Munich 1990, p. 22.
  18. Joachim Ritter, Karlfried founder, Gottfried Gabriel (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy . Volume 8, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1986, p. 170.
  19. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Weimar Complete Edition in four sections . Weimar 1887–1912. Volume 1, p. 172.
  20. See Klaus Herding: Realism. In: Werner Busch, Peter Schmoock (Ed.): Art. The history of their functions. Weinheim, Berlin 1987, p. 702.
  21. Ibid., P. 702.
  22. ^ Friedrich Nietzsche: "55. The realistic painter." In: The happy science. In: Retrieved December 3, 2015 .
  23. Cf. Heinz Buddemeier: Panorama, Diorama, Photography. Origin and impact of new media in the 19th century. Studies and documents , Fink, Munich 1970, p. 93.
  24. Cf. Ronald Berg: The Icon of the Real. For the determination of photography in the work of Talbot, Benjamin and Barthes . Munich 2001, p. 314.
  25. ^ Henry Fox Talbot: The Pencil of Nature . London 1844.
  26. Cf. Peter Geimer: Photography and what it was not. Photogenic Drawings 1834–1844 . In: Gabriele Dürbeck et al. (Ed.): Perception of nature, nature of perception. Studies on the history of visual culture around 1800. Verlag der Kunst, Dresden 2001, pp. 141ff.