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Friday, November 12, 2010

Blatant Realism

When times are tough, people, even whole nations, have a tendency to return to basics. This is true of art and artist, as well. Realism has always flourished during difficult economic times. During the 1930s, the realism of Grant Wood is a perfect example. Today, when we think of Realism as a style of painting, we tend to look at it broadly, not discerning any degrees of Realism. However, in looking at the art of the nineteenth century, the painted Realism of the first half looks quite different from that of the second. Nowhere is this more evident than in the painted portraits from those two eras.

During the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States, times were rough. The nation was in the throes of growing pains similar to a sort of national adolescence, and struggling mightily simply to remain United states. There was a "no nonsense" quality to everything the country did during this era from canal building to railroad building to nation building. That quality also carried over into the art of the times. If the word "naturalism" befitted the style of landscape painting during this time, the term "realism" was the dominating element in portrait painting, then still the nations most important form of art.  In fact some historians have even gone so far as to label the style Blatant Realism, and not without good cause.

Daguerreotype photo of
Congressman Abraham Lincoln,

Portrait painters in the first half of the nineteenth century were second generation American artists with an artistic tradition (albeit a very shallow one) to look back upon and build upon. It was a pretentious era in which the veneer of success and respectability was paper thin. Scratch it only slightly, even in the civilized East, and just beneath the surface was the remnants of the American frontier--a life and time many of the dignified faces staring out from genteel oil portraits of the time were trying desperately to put behind them. Add to that the arrival from France in 1839 of Samuel F. B.  Morse with Louis Daggeurre's process for making photographs and you have the makings for a little "war" between new science and old art that promised to make life miserable for portrait painters for the next 25 years.

 It's difficult to overstate the impact the advent of photography had on the painted portrait in a nation of hard-nosed Yankee pragmatism coupled with our long-standing love affair with new technology. Almost immediately painters of miniature portraits became extinct. Seeing the writing on the wall, artists like Charles Loring Elliot, Chester Harding, and Lilly Martin Spencer felt the need to compete head on with portrait photography. They had on their side the ability to paint much larger than early photographs and, of course, in color. Also, they had a tradition of artistic excellence that early photographic processes couldn't come close to matching.

Samuel Putnam Avery, 1863,
Charles Loring Elliot

What they lacked was the verisimilitude that photography offered in capturing every line, hair, and nuance of the sitter's appearance. It was here where painters crossed the line, from simple realism, into the blatant realism that today makes art historians cringe. In their struggle to compete, they often gave their painted portraits, much the same stiff, stark, unblinking harshness of most photographs during this period. In fact, many portrait painters were already embracing the time-saving benefits of photography by using photos from which to paint, though often surreptitiously. It remained for artist such as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent to eschew the photograph and return some sanity to the art of portrait painting during the final decade of the nineteenth century.

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