Painting “Real” Life

As paintings are generally considered to be examples of fine art, and fine art is intended for consumption by the upper class, I have a hard time reconciling it with the other forms of realism that we have been discussing in class. Photographs capture a scene in a short period of time with a high level of fidelity. Sketches take a little longer to capture a scene. And they do not typically capture the same level of detail as a photograph. But they can capture the motion that would blur in a photograph of the 19th century. Furthermore, due to the expense and difficulty of printing photographs to newspapers and magazines, sketches were a legitimate and respected form for the delivery of news. On the other hand, paintings take much more time to create an image than either photographs or sketches. Artists hire models that sit for hours. And painters require a knowledge of craft that far exceeds the needs of photographers or sketch artists. Therefore, photographs and sketches from the 19th century have a stronger association with “the real” than high art like paintings.

But paintings do have ways of creating reality effects. Like sketches photographs had the ability to capture the essence of movement. During the 19th century, painters began to pick subjects that aligned with realist sensibilities. However, the ability to create works of art in full color is one reality effect that photographs and sketches did not have.


The Fog Warning, 1885, Boston Art Museum, Boston

Typical of naturalist or possibly regionalist content, Homer’s The Fog Warning depicts a fisherman struggling against the choppy ocean to bring in the day’s catch. The ocean and boat are highly detailed. Yet, the figure rowing the boat is painted relatively small and the man’s facial features are simply done. The focus on the boat and the ocean and the readily identifiable fisherman’s clothing shows that the occupation and the natural setting are more important than the identity of the figure.


George Bellows, Both Members of This Club (1909), National Gallery of Art. Bellows was a close associate of the Ashcan school.

George Bellows Both Members of This Club makes the two boxers in the ring the main focus of the painting depicting making them highly detailed large and centered. However, due to the positioning of the combatant’s arms their faces are obscured. Because of the hidden faces of the boxers, the focus of the painting is on the event rather than the figures. And the realist subject of this painting becomes both the occupation of boxer and the pastime of the city dwellers who watch the fight.


George Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913, oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

George Bellows’ Cliff Dwellers depicts the everyday struggle of life in the city. While there are many figures in the crowd on the street, they are rendered indistinctly focusing the viewer’s eyes on the crowd rather than on individuals. Most of the detail is focused on the buildings and the clothes lines, laden with drying clothes, strung from one building to the next. This painting seems to be focused on the unique struggle of daily life in the cities and the people’s fear of losing their identities among the faceless throng.