American Realism was a style in art, music and literature that depicted contemporary social realities and the lives and everyday activities of ordinary people. The movement began in literature in the mid-19th century, and became an important tendency in visual art in the early 20th century. Whether a cultural portrayal or a scenic view of downtown New York City, American realist works attempted to define what was real.
In the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century a new generation of painters, writers and journalists were coming of age. Many of the painters felt the influence of older U.S. artists such as Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, Thomas Pollock Anshutz, and William Merritt Chase. However they were interested in creating new and more urbane works that reflected city life and a population that was more urban than rural in the U.S. as it entered the new century.
Great creators, from Mark Twain to Edward Hopper, express during this intense period of questioning codes of representation, a new way of looking at the daily life of the country, focusing on news items, urban centers, and introducing elements of modernity from everyday life.
Plastic arts, music, literature and journalism are gradually taking on American social realities, no longer looking at the privileged people of the system, but at others, the ordinary people who are thus magnified. The obvious political and social dimension of this movement is carried by an awareness that can be brought back to the middle of the 19th century, when, in Europe, the essential and very controversial question of realism arose, especially in literature: the the international influence of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens is essential here because it is a founder. Another shock for America is the civil war which divides then strengthens nationalism, giving birth to the Gilded Age, a period of growth which hides many inequalities and illusions, followed by a progressive era which gives birth later to the American way of life as a consensual model doubled by an egalitarian ideal but torn by many conservative movements.
These facts allow to America at the turn of XX th century, to assert in terms aesthetics and develop a true school of thought, culture, certainly plural, but belongs only to America.
America in the early 20th century
From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, the United States experienced huge industrial, economic, social and cultural change. A continuous wave of European immigration and the rising potential for international trade brought increasing growth and prosperity to America. Through art and artistic expression (through all mediums including painting, literature and music), American Realism attempted to portray the exhaustion and cultural exuberance of the figurative American landscape and the life of ordinary Americans at home.
Artists used the feelings, textures and sounds of the city to influence the color, texture and look of their creative projects. Musicians noticed the quick and fast-paced nature of the early 20th century and responded with a fresh and new tempo. Writers and authors told a new story about Americans; boys and girls real Americans could have grown up with. Pulling away from fantasy and focusing on the now, American Realism presented a new gateway and a breakthrough—introducing modernism, and what it means to be in the present. The Ashcan School also known as The Eight and the group called Ten American Painters created the core of the new American Modernism in the visual arts.
The visual arts
During this period of the Gilded Age, going from the decade 1870 until the beginning of the xx th century, art did not escape the mutations that the country knew. The most famous American artists of this era, such as Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Maurice Prendergast, were nevertheless strongly influenced by European and particularly French painting. Many young artists will study art in Europe, and Paris remains the central attraction of the art market, or at least where gender boundaries move. One of the most representative American artists of this era is James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who, living between London, Paris and New York, serves as a link between the different currents and trends.
Groups of very active painters
New York was until then the most active center of American painting with for example the Hudson River School, but also exhibitions, auction rooms and associations, groups, communities (like the Cos Cob art colony, established in Connecticut, marked by impressionism) who campaigned for an American art to be present on the international scene. Among these are the American Art Association (en), the American Watercolor Society, the Ten American Painters (The Ten) and the Ash Can School.
The latter will play an important role in the birth of the American realistic movement. A new generation of artists then concentrated on a painting influenced by the concerns of urban populations, and drew their inspiration from the poorest neighborhoods of New York. The painting gradually begins to detach from the pictorial heritage of the Gilded Age. Informal group, originally from Philadelphia, without really being a movement, these artists, under the impulse of Robert Henri, come together to give the painting a documentary dimension, very close to reality and describing with as much precision as possible. modern life news. They are inspired by the recurrent themes of the streets of the lower districts (drunkards, prostitutes, boxing fights…).
In 1908, five artists from the Ash Can School participated in a major exhibition in the history of American painting: Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, George Luks, William J. Glackens and George Bellows. It begins at the Mac Beth Gallery in New Yorkand travels in total nine cities on the continent (New York, Chicago, Toledo, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Bridgeport and Newark). Three other artists, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur Bowen Davies, Ernest Lawson, join them in the adventure. This exhibition called The Eight (because it brought together eight painters) enjoyed a certain popularity, despite a criticism that was sometimes very harsh. However, the eight artists are launched and each experience a true career. Henri – who is a professor at the New York School of Art -, Davies, Sloan, among others, found themselves working for the socialist magazine The Massesfrom 1911, one of the most surprising graphic laboratories of that time. One of Robert Henri and Sloan’s most famous students is Edward Hopper, who from 1904 produced canvases.
Ashcan School and The Eight
The Ashcan School was a group of New York City artists who sought to capture the feel of early-20th-century New York City, through realistic portraits of everyday life. These artists preferred to depict the richly and culturally textured lower class immigrants, rather than the rich and promising Fifth Avenue socialites. One critic of the time did not like their choice of subjects, which included alleys, tenements, slum dwellers, and in the case of John Sloan, taverns frequented by the working class. They became known as the revolutionary black gang and apostles of ugliness.
George Bellows (1882–1925), painted city life in New York City. His paintings had an expressionist boldness and a willingness to take risks. He had a fascination with violence as seen in his 1909 painting, Both Members of This Club, which depicts a rather gory boxing scene. His 1913 painting Cliff Dwellers, depicts a city-scape that is not one particular view but a composite of many views.
Robert Henri (1865–1921) was an important American Realist and a member of The Ashcan School. Henri was interested in the spectacle of common life. He focused on individuals, strangers, quickly passing in the streets in towns and cities. His was a sympathetic rather than a comic portrayal of people, often using a dark background to add to the warmth of the person depicted. Henri’s works were characterized by vigorous brushstrokes and bold impasto which stressed the materiality of the paint. Henri influenced Glackens, Luks, Shinn and Sloan. In 1906, he was elected to the National Academy of Design, but when painters in his circle were rejected for the Academy’s 1907 exhibition, he accused fellow jurors of bias and walked off the jury, resolving to organize a show of his own. He would later refer to the Academy as a cemetery of art.
Everett Shinn (1876–1953), a member of the Ashcan School, was most famous for his numerous paintings of New York and the theater, and of various aspects of luxury and modern life inspired by his home in New York City. He painted theater scenes from London, Paris and New York. He found interest in the urban spectacle of life, drawing parallels between the theater and crowded seats and life. Unlike Degas, Shinn depicted interaction between the audience and performer.
George Benjamin Luks
George B. Luks (1866–1933) was an Ashcan school artist who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In Luks’ painting, Hester Street (1905), he shows children being entertained by a man with a toy while a woman and shopkeeper have a conversation in the background. The viewer is among the crowd rather than above it. Luks puts a positive spin on the Lower East Side by showing two young girls dancing in The Spielers, which is a type of dance that working class immigrants would engage in; despite the poverty, children dance on the street. He looks for the joy and beauty in the life of the poor rather than the tragedy.
Early in his career, William Glackens (1870–1938) painted the neighborhood surrounding his studio in Washington Square Park. He also was a successful commercial illustrator, producing numerous drawings and watercolors for contemporary magazines that humorously portrayed New Yorkers in their daily lives. Later in life, he was much better known as “the American Renoir” for his Impressionist views of the seashore and the French Riviera.
John Sloan (1871–1951) was an early-20th-century Realist of the Ashcan School, whose concerns with American social conditions led him to join the Socialist Party in 1910. Originally from Philadelphia, he worked in New York after 1904. From 1912 to 1916, he contributed illustrations to the socialist monthly The Masses. Sloan disliked propaganda, and in his drawings for The Masses, as in his paintings, he focused on the everyday lives of people. He depicted the leisure of the working class with an emphasis on female subjects. Among his best known works are Picnic Grounds and Sunday, Women Drying their Hair. He disliked the Ashcan School label, and expressed his annoyance with art historians who identified him as a painter of the American Scene: “Some of us used to paint little rather sensitive comments about the life around us. We didn’t know it was the American Scene. I don’t like the name… A symptom of nationalism, which has caused a great deal of trouble in this world.”
Edward Hopper (1882–1967) was a prominent American realist painter and printmaker. Hopper is the most modern of the American realists, and the most contemporary. While most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. In both his urban and rural scenes, his spare and finely calculated renderings reflected his personal vision of modern American life.
Hopper’s teacher, Robert Henri, encouraged his students to use their art to “make a stir in the world”. He also advised his students, It isn’t the subject that counts but what you feel about it and Forget about art and paint pictures of what interests you in life. In this manner, Henri influenced Hopper, as well as famous students George Bellows and Rockwell Kent, and motivated them to render realistic depictions of urban life. Some artists in Henri’s circle, including another teacher of Hopper’s, John Sloan, became members of “The Eight”, also known as the Ashcan School of American Art. His first existing oil painting to hint at his famous interiors was Solitary Figure in a Theater (c. 1904). During his student years, Hopper also painted dozens of nudes, still lifes, landscapes, and portraits, including his self-portraits.
Other visual artists
Joseph Stella, Charles Sheeler, Jonas Lie, Edward Willis Redfield, Joseph Pennell, Leon Kroll, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Gertrude Käsebier, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, E. J. Bellocq
After the first world war a new artistic tendency is set up. It is strongly inspired by European painting of the time. Franco-Spanish with Cubism on the one hand and Italian on the other with Futurism. It draws its favorite themes from industrialization. Joseph Stella’s painting, Brooklyn Bridge (1919-1920) is representative of the proximity that exists between precisionism and futurism. But new to the United States, the artists refuse any European artistic influence and claim purely as part of a culture of American artists.
A large part of the precisionist production focuses on urban representation. Towers, bridges, tunnels or streets… But the trends between urban and rural representation are still strongly shared.
Urban and rural painting
In the 1920s, a naturalist current with two very distinct lines appeared in the United States.
The first of these two currents describes scenes of urban landscapes, workers’ work and misery. The frustrations engendered by everyday life and the search for compensation are then found in town… Restaurants, sailors arriving on land, scenes of life in Harlem, or even the craze for cinema. Many distractions are eagerly sought by the population in the urban world. But the crisis of 1929, with its unemployment, its poverty, its expropriations tarnished the joyful image of the city. Artists like Joe Jones and Charles Sheeler will evoke the harmful effects of the crisis on numerous occasions in their works.
The second current which is developing explores a regionalism far from the big cities. American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood is an emblematic example of American realism. Both critical of the Puritan countryside model and praising the past, the overall work of Wood or Marvin Cone also shows a soothing vision of the rural world. This contrasts sharply with the economic situation in the country in the early 1930s.
The photographic eye
The American school of photography evolved considerably shortly before 1900 with the personality of Alfred Stieglitz, who founded journals centered on film photography, including Camera Work, and promoted a large number of visual artists, not just photographers, with his New York gallery 291. In 1913, he was one of the first to notice Marcel Duchamp during the Armory Show. Around Stieglitz, there are strong personalities like Gertrude Käsebier and Edward Steichen. In the south, a photographer like Ernest J. Bellocq takes a unique look at the prostitutes of theNew Orleans.
Literature and press
American literature is changing dramatically during the second half of the XIX th century, showing their time to this, the writers forge the spirit of generations of creators who approach the new century.
The civil war produced an abundant literature, one of the most significant representatives of which is Sam Watkins who, in a mixture of humor and frankness, recounts the daily life of a Union soldier, who is far from to be a hero. The first and most popular writer to draw inspiration from realistic and urban themes is Horatio Alger whose best-known book is Ragged Dick; however, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks published in 1868 and republished for several decades, which depicts a young shoe shineer from New York, who has the strength of courage, obtains better social status. Algiers helped shape the American literary myth of the self made man. Native of Newark (New Jersey), the novelist Stephen Crane introduces a hiatus in the optimistic literary field of the Gilded Age, indeed, he knows a big success with Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), the story of a poor girl, beaten by her alcoholic parents, who ends up prostituting herself and then committing suicide. As part of the naturalistic and notably French romantic tradition, he was the first in the United States to practice this genre: his moralist ambition was counterbalanced here by a great precision of the socio-economic realities of his time.
All these writers of course collaborate in periodicals, in particular the magazines of general interest which develop considerably across the Atlantic and cover the whole of an immense territory: one of the most open press bosses with a realistic current is William Dean Howells, who was the editor of Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. Sensitive to socialist ideas, he is the author of two novels, A Modern Instance (1882) and The Rise of Silas Lapham(1885), who this time debunk the American myth of the self made man. The prints will fly away from the 1890s thanks to technical advances, such as photo-mechanization, which allow the inclusion of color illustrations. Among the pioneer designers, Howard Pyle, marked by the history of the country, and especially Paul Martin (1883-1932), whose direct style, rooted in everyday life, and very recognizable, was popular among the young generations.
One of the most famous youth writers of his time remains Mark Twain who, with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1874) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), far from the blunders, depicts rural American youth, in a vigorous style, without mannerism and not without insolence. His freedom of tone and style make, according to Ernest Hemingway one of the fathers of modern American literature.
Horatio Alger, Jr.
Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832-1899) was a prolific 19th-century American author whose principal output was formulaic rags-to-riches juvenile novels that followed the adventures of bootblacks, newsboys, peddlers, buskers, and other impoverished children in their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of respectable middle-class security and comfort. His novels, of which Ragged Dick is a typical example, were hugely popular in their day.
Stephen Crane (1871–1900), born in Newark, New Jersey, had roots going back to the American Revolutionary War era, soldiers, clergymen, sheriffs, judges, and farmers who had lived a century earlier. Primarily a journalist who also wrote fiction, essays, poetry, and plays, Crane saw life at its rawest, in slums and on battlefields. His haunting Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was published to great acclaim in 1895, but he barely had time to bask in the attention before he died, at 28, having neglected his health. He has enjoyed continued success ever since—as a champion of the common man, a realist, and a symbolist. Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), is one of the best, if not the earliest, naturalistic American novel. It is the harrowing story of a poor, sensitive young girl whose uneducated, alcoholic parents utterly fail her. In love, and eager to escape her violent home life, she allows herself to be seduced into living with a young man, who soon deserts her. When her self-righteous mother rejects her, Maggie becomes a prostitute to survive, but soon commits suicide out of despair. Crane’s earthy subject matter and his objective, scientific style, devoid of moralizing, earmark Maggie as a naturalist work.
William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells (1837–1920) wrote fiction and essays in the realist mode. His ideas about realism in literature developed in parallel with his socialist attitudes. In his role as editor of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine, and as the author of books such as A Modern Instance and The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells exerted a strong opinion and was influential in establishing his theories.
Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, grew up in the Mississippi River frontier town of Hannibal, Missouri. Early 19th-century American writers tended to be flowery, sentimental, or ostentatious—partially because they were still trying to prove that they could write as elegantly as the English. Ernest Hemingway, in Green Hills of Africa, wrote that many Romantics “wrote like exiled English colonials from an England of which they were never a part to a newer England that they were making… They did not use the words that people have always used in speech, the words that survive in language.” In the same essay, Hemingway stated that all American fiction comes from Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s style, based on vigorous, realistic, colloquial American speech, gave American writers a new appreciation of their national voice. Twain was the first major author to come from the interior of the country, and he captured its distinctive, humorous slang and iconoclasm. For Twain and other American writers of the late 19th century, realism was not merely a literary technique: It was a way of speaking truth and exploding worn-out conventions. Twain is best known for his works Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Sam. R. Watkins
Sam. R. Watkins (1839–1901) was a 19th-century American writer and humorist best known for his memoir, “Co. Aytch,” which recounts his life as a soldier in the Confederate States Army. He “talked in a slow humorous drawl” and demonstrated unusual prowess as a storyteller. One of the book’s commendable qualities is its realism. In an age noted for romanticizing “the war” and the men who fought it, he wrote with surprising frankness. The Johnny Rebs of his pages are not all heroes. Soldier life as portrayed by Watkins had more of the dullness and suffering than of excitement and glory. He tells much of the crushing fatigue of long marches; the boredom and discomfort of the long winter lulls; the caprice and harshness of discipline; the incompetency of the officers; the periodic lapses of morale; the uncertainty and meagerness of rations; and the wearying grind of army routine. His accounts of battle make frequent reference to the dreadful screaming of shells, the awful horror of mutilated bodies and the agonizing cries of the wounded. War as detailed by his pen was a cruel and sordid business.
Other writers of this sort included Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Margaret Deland, and Edith Wharton.
Jacob August Riis (1849–1914), a Danish-American muckraker journalist, photographer, and social reformer, was born in Ribe, Denmark. He is known for his dedication to using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the less fortunate in New York City, which was the subject of most of his prolific writings and photographic essays. He helped with the implementation of “model tenements” in New York with the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller. As one of the first photographers to use flash, he is considered a pioneer in photography.
Art Young (1866–1943) was an American cartoonist and writer. He is most famous for his socialist cartoons, especially those drawn for the radical magazine The Masses, of which Young was co-editor, between 1911 and 1917. Young started out as a generally apolitical Republican, but gradually became interested in left wing ideas, and by 1906 or so considered himself a socialist. He became politically active; by 1910, racial and sexual discrimination and the injustices of the capitalist system became prevalent themes in his work.
In the years 1880-1890, a new generation of young musicians, including those from African-American communities, began to gain real notoriety in the major urban centers of the country. This music is anchored in social realities and takes the form of ballads, feeding on folklore but also on urban life. Social and economic progress has not only favored white musicians: a black bourgeoisie emerged in the 1900s, especially north of Manhattan: the impact is so great that we speak of the Harlem Renaissance to qualify the former as much activists of black emancipation, as novelists, visual artists and musicians who for the most part have a solid classical training.
The first notable musician to be linked to this realistic current was James Allen Bland (1854-1911), educated in Washington DC, who made a career in England before returning to his country. He is the author of more than 700 songs, which have become classics. The second essential musical figure is that of William Christopher Handy, called the “father of the blues ” (The Father of the Blues). Originally from Alabama, he will make a career in Memphis and publish many songs which will become standards and which he has modernized thanks to his mastery of music and his openness to the realities of his time. The third is Scott Joplin, one of the masters of ragtime.
James Allen Bland
James A. Bland (1854–1919) was the first prominent African American songwriter and is known for his ballad, Carry me Back to Old Virginny. In the Evening by the Moonlight and Golden Slippers are well known songs of his, and he wrote other hits of the period including In the Morning by the Bright Light and De Golden Wedding. Bland wrote most of his songs from 1879 to 1882; in 1881 he left America for England with Haverly’s Genuine Colored Minstrels. Bland found England more rewarding than the United States and stayed there until 1890; either he stopped writing songs during this period or he was unable to find an English publisher.
C.A. White (1829–1892) wrote a hit song in 1869, Put Me in My Little Bed, establishing him as a major songwriter. White was a songwriter of serious aspirations: many of his songs were written for vocal quartets. He also made several attempts at opera. As half-owner of the music publishing firm White, Smith & Company, he had a ready outlet for his work: but it was his songs that supported the publishing firm and not the other way around. White did not scorn writing for the popular stage—indeed he wrote a song for the pioneering African-American stage production Out of Bondage—but his principal output was for the parlor singer.
W. C. Handy (1873–1958) was a blues composer and musician, often known as the “Father of the Blues”. Handy remains among the most influential of American songwriters. Though he was one of many musicians who played the distinctively American form of music known as the blues, he is credited with giving it its contemporary form. While Handy was not the first to publish music in the blues form, he took the blues from a not very well known regional music style to one of the dominant forces in American music. Handy was an educated musician who used folk material in his compositions. He was scrupulous in documenting the sources of his works, which frequently combined stylistic influences from several performers. He loved this folk musical form and brought his own transforming touch to it.
Scott Joplin (c. 1867/68–1917) was an American musician and composer of ragtime music and remains the best-known figure. His music enjoyed a considerable resurgence of popularity and critical respect in the 1970s, especially for his most famous composition, “The Entertainer” which was featured as the main theme in the 1973 film The Sting.