Realism, in the visual arts, is the attempt to represent reality. This style known by avoiding the search for the aesthetic beauty and by rejecting the use of artistic conventions to enrich a composition, hence creates a precise representation of the subject. In summary, we can understand the main characteristics of realist works as having a focus on portraying the mundane, the sordid, the ugly, and the real. But be careful, It is not uncommon that people mistake this movement for Naturalism, as both share the same characteristics in terms of style and primary intent. Yet, Realism refers to a certain context and reacts to specific historical events, depicting the changes brought by the industrial and commercial revolutions, and other transformations staged in the early 20th Century.
The French revolution of 1848 caused paradigm changes in the art world so Realism began as an artistic movement influenced by these changes. The movement gained notoriety in fields such as literature, visual and performing arts, as a rebellion against the strong drama and emotionalism of the Romantic movement, which was trendy back then. Instead, realist works to portray situations of everyday life with truth, without excluding some of its unpleasant and ugly aspects. These works depicted the contemporary realities of ordinary people, which became an important tendency in visual arts during the beginning of the 20th Century. Realism was the first explicitly anti-institutional art movement and also had important exponents in the Soviet Union (socialist realism) and in the United States (American realism), all sharing the same style, aesthetics, and intent.
In the United States, Winslow Homer can be considered a pioneer of the style, as his work mainly approached subjects from everyday life. However, the artist was primarily focused on rural life, ignoring the significant role of metropolitan environments during that time. Even though Homer’s work can be considered the beginning of a new perspective, American Realism – as we know it nowadays – truly started with the next generation of artists: George Bellows, Joan Sloan, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper and others who formed the so-called Ashcan School.
The Ashcan School was a group of artists from New York City who intended to capture the feel of the early-20th-century metropolis. They chose to depict the reality of the big cities by observing the richly and culturally textured lives of its lower classes instead of the wealthy and glamorous lives of the rich. This choice of subject triggered heavy criticism in the art world, which has always rejected the scenarios of poorness and melancholy of the working classes as was portrayed by these artists. The Ashcan artists aimed at defining the real and bringing to light a kind of life completely neglected in the circles of high art. For them, the city itself – with its material and immaterial aspects – was the one to define what is ‘real’, not the elitist art world. Since these artists embraced the informal, the customary and the ‘ugly’ that defined the day-to-day life in big cities, the Ashcan School was labeled by their critics as the “apostles of ugliness”.
What differentiated the Ashcan School from all the other artists was their ability to recognize the true potential of American culture by portraying the peculiarities of its urban life and the atmosphere of the big cities. This outlook built the foundational stone for the creation of modern art and therefore made it possible for American art to become what it is today. The Ashcan School was the first step towards the understanding that the impact of pop culture, mass-media, commercialization, industrialization, and other social transformations staged in the 20th Century on the lives of the regular big city inhabitant were key to establish the American identity. The Ashcan School represented the country through the cold lens of reality, thus generating the image of urbanity, development, and democracy that characterize the country nowadays. More than that, these artists set the conviction that everyday life and the modern world were suitable subjects for works of art.