What Are the Basic Characteristics of Realism?

By Brian Connolly ; Updated September 15, 2017
An artist preparing an exhibition of paintings.

Realism as a style of art emerged in the 19th century as a way of expressing the world with photographic accuracy. Unlike its predecessors, neoclassicism and romanticism, realism presents the idea that an artist’s highest accomplishment is to faithfully represent life as it happens around him. While each art form has its own way of exploring the realist aesthetic, they each incorporate the same basic principles and characteristics.

Photographic Accuracy

Realism followed on the heels of the romantic movement in art, which favored bold subjects and scenery in order to convey emotional intensity. By contrast, realism sought to capture everyday life in photographic accuracy, down to the correct clothing, setting and quality of light. This characteristic can be seen in the 1852 painting “Young Ladies of the Village” by French artist Gustave Courbet that depicts Courbet's three sisters in plain dress enjoying a walk in the countryside alongside a girl, a few animals and several unembellished bushes and stones. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York said that the painting, which lacks both the symmetrical form of neoclassicism and the exotic elements of romanticism, was heavily criticized during its time as being too plain and ordinary.

Absolute Objectivity

In addition to being accurate, 19th century realism artists often stripped their subjects down to their core essentials, creating unadorned and honest artwork. This characteristic emerged from a philosophy that the natural world contained its own eloquence and symbolism without the artist needing to superimpose their own ideas upon it. In literature, this took the form of novels such as French author Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 publication of “Madame Bovary" that portrayed a frank, true-to-life narrative of a woman seeking to overcome boredom by romantic whims and affairs. This objectivity and lack of moral synopsizing shocked readers who were accustomed to mild-mannered novels such as Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Timing and Lighting

In painting as well as in theater and film, realism artists use source lighting to recreate a scene’s natural lighting and time of day. In theater and film, this is often done by using the actual light sources in a scene to provide illumination -- a lamp, fireplace or window. Playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen also reinforced the principles of realistic accuracy in the form of the well-made play, a specific type of play in which each minute of stage time often matched a minute of actual time. Set builders and costumers also demonstrate this aesthetic by using designs and materials that accurately reflect a certain time.

Emphasis on the Everyday

Where previous artists often portrayed subjects that were biblical, heroic, royal or mythological, realists preferred to capture the experience of the lower class. This characteristic is commonly seen in realist paintings, including American artist Thomas Eakins’ 1875 painting, “The Gross Clinic” that portrayed a patient undergoing surgery. Such commonplace subjects would have been unthinkable for painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, who were more likely to depict scenes from history or classical mythology.

About the Author

Based in the Appalachian Mountains, Brian Connolly is a certified nutritionist and has been writing professionally since 2000. He is a licensed yoga and martial arts instructor whose work regularly appears in “Metabolism,” “Verve” and publications throughout the East Coast. Connolly holds advanced degrees from the University of North Carolina, Asheville and the University of Virginia.