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Thursday, April 19, 2012

American Realism

One of the most persistent hallmarks of American art, painting in particular, is our fondness for Realism (with a capital "R"). The French think they invented the style, citing artists such as Gustave Courbet or Camille Corot; but long before either were ever born, since colonial times and John Singleton Copley and Charles Willson Peale, one might even go so far as to say Realism has been the predominant style of art in the U.S. And in the more recent past, it can still be seen in the work of Andrew Wyeth. Americans have, at times, flirted boldly with everything from seductive Romanticism to harsh abstraction, but again and again, the same, no-nonsense, Yankee pragmatism that says hot dogs should be the same length as the bun, or that the popcorn is just as important as the movie, exerts itself and we find hard-edged, you-can-tell-exactly-what-it-is painting continuing its presence even in the most snooty, upper-crust art galleries.

Perils of the Sea, 1881, Winslow Homer
Each century has its "Kings of Realism." I've already mention Copley and Peale from the 18th century and Wyeth from the 20th. During the 19th century two names compete for top honors--Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Homer is somewhat Romantic. Eakins, on the other hand, is so nearly his opposite, so analytically cut and dried, even dramatically so, that what we have are two extremes which, together, mark the outer boundaries of what American Realism is all about. Homer started as a Civil War illustrator (a foundry of realism if there ever was one). After the war, he studied Corot and Courbet in France and found their style matched his first name--Yankee (I kid you not). In returning to the US, his style matured over his lifetime, becoming slightly more "arty" perhaps, but never losing sight of the American tradition for (as Dragnet's Joe Friday put it) "just the facts, ma'am."

The Gross Clinic, 1875, Thomas Eakins
One has only to catch a glimpse of Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic, painted in 1875, to recognize it as one of perhaps two or three of the greatest American paintings of the 19th century (all of which were rigidly realistic). There are elements of Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip though Eakins goes beyond this prototype in depicting not only the "facts," but the drama, even the emotion of the moment as one of the patient's female relatives hides her face, unable to stand the sight of her kinsman's open incision. Eakins' skill at portraiture is immediately apparent, but so are his compositional skills in the seemingly spontaneous grouping of the figures that in fact, hides any apparent studied arrangement that might in any detract from the naturalness of his presentation. If art imitates science, only in America is there an art so realistic that it attempts to become a science.

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