Realism in art is defined in the same way as it would be in literature; it is the rendering of the subject matter as it really is without being embellished or putting one's personal influence on it. The whole emphasis with realist painting is to portray the scene or the person as is in a no frills and unromantic fashion. What is sought in realism is to relay exactly what the artist is seeing to the future viewer of the painting without adding to or taking away from the subject.
Many of the paintings done my realist painters tend to deal more with situations or subjects that are a little abnormal or even sordid. Realist photography is the same way, for example some of the photos from Vietnam portraying an actual shooting, while shocking, were also very real. The idea of realism is to say this is all I know, what I see with my own eyes, whereas idealism is more concerned with a philosophy that our world is just a reflection of something greater.
Realist painters are more likely to work in subject matter that is commonplace and everyday such as farming, fishing, and other normal everyday pastimes as well specializing in painting the elderly. The colors chosen are completely non embellished and even border on being drab compared to other styles of painting.
In the 1500's mannerism was probably the most practiced from of art in Europe and depicted figures that were exaggerated and abnormal appearing in unrealistic positions. The work of Caravaggio changed all of this when his paintings of average everyday people involved in the doing normal activities became popular. All of his paintings were simply like photographs or snapshots of real events of everyday ordinary people.
The Dutch were famous for embracing realism and the detail of the paintings from the Dutch Masters is unsurpassed. Rembrandt was one of the most famous of these realist painters whose works are admired and studied to this day. I look at these paintings and am amazed by the attention to detail that they were able to show.
Today, realism is still a major force in art as well as all other forms of media. Some of the largest draws at museums are the realist photographers who are portraying subject matter from the Gulf War and other similar tragic landscapes in a way that tugs at the heart. Realism can make you feel like you are there and at the same time, glad you are not.
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