Social Realism in Art
Although Social Realism took the American art world by storm following World War I, the social realist art tradition was first seen in France decades before its American expression. Unsurprisingly, both of the European and American art movements were fueled by artists desperately trying to portray the harsh realities they saw every day. By 1870, European artists began depicting the harsh working conditions fueled by the Industrial Revolution and the plight of the working class. Artists often created works with social and political goals in mind, particularly using their work to criticize wealthy elites and monarchies. To these artists, 19th and 20th century social problems were not faceless. By sharing the experience of the individual, the artists of the Social Realism movement invited their viewers to experience the true emotions that accompany exploitation, confusion and reality.
Please join our journey exploring Social Realism through history, across the globe and through to our present age. These masterful and powerful works of art not only propelled this art movement and
art history toward a more honest depiction of the human condition, they also illustrate the power of a shared global experience.
History: Out of Necessity
In the wake of the shared trauma of the Civil War, the romantic works from Impressionists and Transcendentalists
no longer satisfied the public. Most Americans faced harsh poverty, pain and trauma on a daily basis and by the mid 20th century, it was finally time for those realities to take center stage on the artistic scene. When a twenty-four year old Stephen Crane published his hallmark novel Red Badge of Courage
in 1892, Civil War veterans asked Crane how was able to capture the personal mental anguish of war with such accuracy. In this novel, war is not romanticized. Henry, the “hero” of the novel, confronts his own cowardice and ultimately flees from battle. The men who experienced these war zones refused to believe that Crane, only eight years old during the Civil War, never took part in combat. The immediate popularity of his breakthrough novel marked a significant turn in America’s social and artistic zeitgeist.
Shared Experience: Social Realism Across the Globe
The Stone Breakers
by Gustave Courbet, first displayed at the 1850 Paris Salon, scandalized salon-goers. Romanticism was the dominant style of the time; the movement emphasized beauty and fantastic drama over reality.
Most of these early viewers were ill-
prepared to see a realistic depiction of the “every man” manual laborer, and Courbet makes his concern for the plight of the poor clear. Here, two figures break and remove stone from a road that is being built for the sake of industrialization and progress. Faceless, their clothing in tatters, Courbet intended his viewers to empathize with these laborers in a revolutionary, universal way. This breakthrough artwork would come to embody the growing European Realism movement, the precursor to Social Realism as it developed during the early 20th century.
The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet. Destroyed in WWII.
Pictured below are three figurative works by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, each depicting the everyday routines of working-class Mexican women. These paintings are small but mighty, and portray an unglamorous reality not often seen in the elite art spheres. Rivera is well known for his monumental figurative murals inspired by industrialization, Mexican identity, capitalism and communism. Much like his Social Realism art
contemporaries, Rivera consistently criticized political elites, turning the focus to the masses. These remarkable works are representative of the Social Realist movement as it combined the political with aesthetics, and challenged popular decorative art styles of its time.
Bathers by Diego Rivera. M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
Untitled by Diego Rivera. Sold by M. S. Rau.
Mujer con Nino by Diego Rivera. Sold by M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
New York City, USA
Amidst rapid industrialization and the rising density of urban spaces, poor living conditions became the norm for working-class citizens. Several artists in New York City chose to portray the circumstances they witnessed, depicting tenement housing, the seedy underbelly, as well as everyday life in the city. These artists organized as the Ashcan School.
One such artist, George Bellows, is well known for his Impressionistic painting style mixed with Realist subject matter. The below work Introducing the Champion
represents Bellows’ well-known body of artworks depicting boxing matches in New York. However, in opposition to the dignified, politically-charged way in which Social Realists portrayed working-class figures, the Ashcan School instead presented them as marginal.
Introducing the Champion by George Bellows. M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
Another important artwork to consider is Makeup
by Jacob Lawrence, an African American artist working in Harlem following the cultural explosion of Harlem Renaissance visual art
who sought to portray the histories and contemporary scenes of Black life in America. Much of Lawrence’s early work depicts the stark realities of the Great Migration, the movement of African American people escaping the Jim Crow South for better opportunities in the North. This art,
however, depicts actors as they prepare in their dressing room backstage, likely at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. The vibrant scene draws the eye to a row of mirrors reflecting the actors’ exaggerated expressions in the style of African masks. These masks not only allude to the symbolic nature of theater history, they also represent the need for many African Americans to “mask” their realities as marginalized people for the entertainment of others. Although Makeup represents the conceptual nature of Social Realism more than the techniques the movement employed, Lawrence’s acclaimed series The Migration of the Negro displays the artist’s invocations of the tenants of American Social Realism.
Makeup by Jacob Lawrence (1952). M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
American in England
For many men and women who experienced World War II
, their memories were clouded with both the beauty and horror of war. Take this watercolor from the “War Sketches” series by Peter Hurd for example. As a War Correspondent, Hurd traveled with the US Air Force to England, Germany, India, and more. This artwork depicts an interior view of an airborne B-17 bomber’s turret. Outside the turret, the English countryside stretches towards the mountains on the horizon, rendered with deep green, brown and yellow hues. The delicate application of paint gives the work an almost dreamlike quality, as if to give the viewer a glimpse into Hurd’s likely convoluted memory.
From a Flying Fortress Over England by Peter Hurd (1942). M. S. Rau, New Orleans.
Legacy: Social Realism’s Influence on Contemporary Art
Social Realism continues to inspire artists today, drawing from the compositional strategies, and political and social focus that earlier artists employed. Social Realism’s impacts on art history can be seen in the social and political motivations underpinning contemporary artist practices in fine art, film, novels, and beyond. These historic artworks discussed above represent only a fraction of the ways Social Realism has been expressed in the world of visual art
Curious about other art movements in history? From post war art to 20th century art movements, visit our blog to discover a world of knowledge in art. And if you’re looking to add an artwork to your collection, browse M.S. Rau’s vast collection of rare art to find a piece that speaks to you!