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American Realism

American Realism

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American Realism

432 pages
4 heures
Sep 15, 2015


Urban realism, snow-covered streets of New York, boxing matches, children on the banks of a river, the painters of the Ash Can School preferred realistic images. Their paintings are a true hymn to noise and sensations. This unconventional movement enabled the birth of a true national artistic identity which broke free from the establishment. The Ash Can School resolutely promoted the affirmation of the modernist current of American art. Edward Hopper, who was a student of Robert Henri, embraced the principles of this movement and brought them to another level.
Sep 15, 2015

À propos de l'auteur

Gerry has lived in the Chicago area nearly all his life. His background includes over thirty years' involvement with aviation; he has flown in balloons, jet fighters and single-engine planes and has written about Canadian bush pilots, Arizona crop-dusters and Gulf of Mexico helicopter fleets. Janet Souter shares her husband Gerry's interest in history. She is president of their company, Avril 1 Group, Inc., and edits all of their joint copy. Janet has joined Gerry in balloon, helicopter and light aircraft flights. They are authors of over forty books, histories, biographies and young adult nonfiction. Their most recent book, written for The History Press, is titled Arlington Heights: A Brief History.

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American Realism - Gerry Souter

Text: Gerry Souter


Baseline Co. Ltd

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4th Floor

District 3, Ho Chi Minh City


© Confidential Concepts, worldwide, USA

© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA

Image-Bar www.image-bar.com

© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA

© Confidential Concepts, Worldwide, USA

Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

© Charles Burchfield

© Everett Shinn

© John Sloan Estate, Artists Rights Society, New York, USA

Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

American Gothic, 1930 by Grant Wood

All rights reserved by the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

© Andrew Wyeth


No parts of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers. Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.

ISBN: 978-1-78310-767-4

Gerry Souter






WINSLOW HOMER (1836-1910)

THOMAS EAKINS (1844-1916)




Robert Henri

Everett Shinn

George Luks

William Glackens

John Sloan

George Bellows

Summary of the Ashcan Artists

EDWARD HOPPER (1882-1967)


GRANT WOOD (1892-1942)


ANDREW WYETH (1917-2009)






Frederic Remington, Boat House at Ingleneuk, c. 1903-1907.

Oil on academy board, 30.5 x 45.7 cm.

Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


The concept of ‘Realism’ as applied to a style of art embraces too much with too little. You might as well try to define ‘Dance’ without looking at ballet, tap, jazz, clog or folk. It is true in art there is Cubism, Futurism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and many more lesser ‘isms’ and each bears certain characteristics, or cleaves to certain constraints or expansions that define the style. Each of these styles has practitioners who themselves are defined by the results of their identification with the specific creative method. Each painter has also brought an individual contribution to the interpretation of the style. The key differences between these ‘isms’ and ‘Realism’ is time, place and state of mind.

A ‘Realist’ painter is the beneficiary of a legacy stretching back to the earliest cave paintings that describe the activities of our most primitive ancestors who ‘saw’ giant elk, mammoths, cave bears and their own humanoid brothers. They ‘saw’ the spears flying through the air, observed the graceful arch of the antelope’s neck and the hump of the buffalo’s back. They painted exactly what they saw, subjects standing still or in motion, in coloured clays mixed with animal fat and tallow. No one is sure if the result was pure journalism of observation or using magical suggestion to assure a successful hunt. The sophistication of interpretation wound its way through the centuries from the stylised propaganda scribed into the walls of tombs and temples to the sprawling epic of the Bayeux Tapestry documenting the Norman-french depredations on the shores of England. Religious faith was reinforced by depictions of stories from holy books such as the Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad-Gita and the Analects of Confucius.

Realism has always dealt with the baggage carried by the interpreter of the scene. The practice of realistic painting produced an elitist class schooled in effects and techniques, and secret paint- and preservation-formulations, like alchemists granting eternal life to reality seen through their eyes and granting reality to scenes played out in their impassioned minds. Masters of technique became elevated in society and gathered together to protect their franchise with orders, academies and societies where membership was seen as a goal, an achievement, a sacred trust. To display their work or commission their skills bestowed a cachet, a symbol of piety, good taste and social responsibility.

Of course there were the malcontents: Dürer, Da Vinci, David, Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Caravaggio; artists whose passion flowed from their brushes and etching needles and crayons to show there was more to realism than polished technique. When the American Colonies of the New World finally sought the trappings of civilisation after their Revolution and Westward Expansion, the Tripolitain War and the War of 1812 and the border wars with Mexico, both a native art and the arts of Europe began staking out new ground. All this civilisation arrived just in time for the birth of photography in the 1840s. The capturing of reflected light in an infinite scale of values preserved in silver halide crystals and fixed with hyposulphite forever democratised reality upside down and backwards on glass and paper, and held a mirror up to nature with the click of a mechanical shutter.

William Metcalf, Gloucester Harbour, 1895.

Oil on canvas, 66.4 x 74.3 cm.

Mead Art Museum, Amherst College,

Amherst, Massachusetts, gift of George D. Pratt.

And what did ‘true artists’ attempt to do with this brave new medium? Why, forced it to look like a painting, of course, and then hurried off to form orders, academies and societies and create rules of recognition for a ‘truly artistic’ photograph. The science and mechanics of photography originated in Europe, but its commercialisation, artistic pretension and ultimate creative potential were achieved in the United States, in the nation of immigrants who inherited the need to challenge the status quo. They passed along that need in their genes. The European wave of academic realism subsided at the hands of the nineteenth-century French Impressionists and tumbled into the larger-than-life theatricality and geographically diverse American scenes and lifestyles. Photography’s faithful translation of light and shadow into a reproducible image freed painters to pursue their imaginations. They could manipulate any of the elements: colour, line, perspective, placement, addition and subtraction, making the scene their reality. Realism as a monolithic, lock-step, strictly governed method of painterly visualisation shattered into nuances of interpretation.

Where you painted could make you a Regional Realist. What you painted might label you a Genre Realist, or who you painted classified your work as Portrait Realist – or maybe a Portrait Regionalist Realist if you painted Native Americans in the West, or sea captains on the East Coast. There were Realists who brushed the style of French Impressionism into every canvas and Academic Realists who dragged the dog-eared mechanics featured in Old World European salons into scenes of American life. Some Realists successfully stepped back and forth across the line between commercial illustration and fine art. Others took realistic subjects into the realms of surrealism or shaved the medium to such a fine point; the results of which challenged the photographic arts.

John Sloan, Gloucester Harbour, 1916.

Oil on canvas, 66 x 81.3 cm.

Syracuse University Art Collection, Syracuse, New York.

Of the variations cited, there are even further nuances that mock the concept of ‘American Realism’ as an all-embracing style. What remains are American Realist artists, each facing subject matter that is part of the fabric of the American scene. The result of their efforts is determined by the filtering of their perceptions through their individual intellects, skill sets, training, regional influences, ethnic influences and basic nurturing. If there is any binding together it is within the tradition of Realist Art in the United States, which accepts such a range from Winslow Homer’s poetic watercolours of the 1860s to the haunting minutiae of Andrew Wyeth and melancholy light of Edward Hopper in the 1950s and 1960s.

This book presents a cross-section of American Realist artists spanning more than one hundred years of art. It begins as some artists struggle with the influences of Europe, and other home-grown painters bring their nineteenth-century American scenes to life, and ends as today’s generation of Realist painters co-exist with American Modernism and absorb this new freedom into the latest incarnation of their art. The range of talent is exceptional, touching on the broadest interpretation of the American Realist artist. In examining this cross-section, we can better understand and appreciate the amazing diversity and the infinitely variable Realist styles.

Eastman Johnson, Woman in White Dress, c. 1875.

Oil on paper board, 56.8 x 35.6 cm.

Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco,

California, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III.



By the 1840s, the United States was still a work in progress. Its population had leaped 33 per cent from the previous decade to 17,063,353 with four states exceeding one million residents: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. Texas signed up for annexation in 1845 and the first immigrant wagon trains headed west over the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. In December of that same year, President James K. Polk told Congress it was the country’s manifest destiny to pursue expansion west and vigorously uphold the Monroe Doctrine.

These great events were just beginning to be communicated across the country by Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph, proven on 24 May 1844 with a message sent from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland that read, What God hath wrought. A somewhat less momentous event was taking place in a Boston studio as a twenty-year-old Eastman Johnson struggled to learn the mechanics of crayon and gum arabic in the art of stone lithography. This was journeyman work, a profession in the printing industry and his father had apprenticed him to the studio by to learn a useful trade.

Young Johnson was born in 1824, in Lovell, a small town near Maine’s western border, the last of eight children born to Mary Kimball Chandler to Phillip Carrigan Johnson. Following Eastman’s sisters, Harriet, Judith, Mary, Sarah, Nell and his brother Reuben, he was also well down the line from first-born, Commodore Phillip Carrigan Johnson Jr. As the family moved from Lovell to Fryeburg, a former frontier outpost in 1762, and to Augusta, Maine’s capital city on the Kennebec River, the patriarch Johnson climbed the ladder of success. From being a successful businessman he ascended to the post of Maine’s Secretary of State and eventually moved on up to influence in Washington D.C. as Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair of the U.S. Navy. It wasn’t difficult to obtain an apprenticeship; Eastman’s gift for drawing and observation made the job a good fit.

At the age of twenty-one Eastman moved to Washington D.C. in 1845 and established himself as a portraitist, eventually producing images of such notables as orator Daniel Webster and Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison. Moving on to Boston the following year, his subtle use of line and tone learned at the stone soon brought him portrait commissions such as the likeness of a youthful Charles Sumner commissioned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The famed poet gave Eastman’s career a considerable boost with requested drawings of Longfellow’s influential friends and family, including poet Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anne Longfellow Pierce, Charles Longfellow, Ernest Longfellow, Mary Longfellow Greenleaf and Cornelius Conway Felton, soon to be president of Harvard University. Johnson worked in Boston for three years, but he felt he needed more training in the fine arts. It was not until 1848 that he created his first oil painting, a portrait of his grandmother.

In 1849, Johnson travelled across the Atlantic to Germany and enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy, an influential realist school created in the early nineteenth century. He was accepted into the studio of the American expatriate artist, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. While the school was noted for its painters who turned out realist landscape allegories and historical subjects, just before Johnson arrived many of its students had been politically involved in social protest, manning the barricades as part of the Burgwehr citizen army. The revolution of 1848-49 forced Frederick William IV to grant a constitution uniting the Prussian States into a single entity. Eastman joined a number of American artists who passed through this school, which at the time was more influential than anything happening in Paris. George Caleb Bingham, Worthington Whittredge, Richard Caton Woodville, William S. Haseltine, James M. Hart, and William Morris Hunt all passed through Düsseldorf as well as the painter of luminescent western landscapes, Albert Bierstadt.

While the academy offered considerable technical training, Johnson felt restricted by the pedagogy and in 1852 packed up his paints and brushes and toured Italy and France, finally ending up in The Hague in Holland. His goal there was to study seventeenth-century Dutch artists, specifically Rembrandt and that artist’s brilliant use of light and composition. His work was so well received that he was offered the post of court painter, which he refused. Johnson had come to a decision that realist art was not tied to populist allegories, drenching sentimentality or forced re-enactments of historical events. Painting could tell both simple and complex stories without bogus emotion or flights of fancy. Direct observation in the field, activities sketched from life, all these acquisitions could render the American lifestyle in the American landscape. Armed with Rembrandt’s methods of visualisation, the rigorous curricula of German technique and his own sensitivity to story telling, Eastman Johnson spent two months in academician Thomas Couture’s Paris studio, and in 1855 he departed for the United States. The American art scene that greeted his arrival was considerably different from when he had left just seven years previously. Daguerreotype salons had sprouted like mushrooms on a log – especially in Washington. The fashionable one-of-a-kind photographic portraits in their velvet and gutta-percha clamshell frames became the rage as carte de visite leave-behinds and commemorative gifts. Sadly, the faces that peered back were mostly severe in expression due to the often three-minute exposures, while the head was securely kept in place by a clamp. Even so, the market for crayon portraits had crashed. Still, his reputation and fine work kept him in portrait commissions in Cincinnati and Washington, and finally funded his studio when he settled in New York.

Another major change was Americans’ attitudes to art and its place in their society. In the 1840s everything European was considered the definition of good taste and enlightened sensibilities. Now, in the 1850s, Americans began to turn inward and seek their own identities in art and letters. The nation’s vistas were expanding and in the East and Midwest those who bought paintings wanted scenes of the exotic Far West. People who lived in teeming cities longed for idealised views of bucolic farm life and recreation in the forests and along country roads, images of simple lives led in the Deep South and even among the Plains Indians.

Eastman Johnson, The Hatch Family, c. 1870-1871.

Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 186.4 cm.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

New York, gift of Frederic H. Hatch.

Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859.

Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 114.9 cm.

Robert L. Stuart Collection,

New York Historical Society, New York, New York.

Eastman Johnson, Corn Husking, 1860.

Oil on canvas, 67.3 x 76.8 cm.

Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse,

New York, gift of Andrew D. White.

Eastman Johnson, Cranberry Pickers, c. 1879.

Oil on paper board, 57.1 x 67.9 cm. Private collection.

It was Johnson’s good luck to have his sister, Sarah, marry William Henry Newton, who took his bride up to property investments he had made in the upper Midwest. Johnson’s brother, Reuben, had also moved up north to Superior, Wisconsin and opened a sawmill. Having kin already established in that distant country motivated Johnson to journey into the wilderness armed with cash from his portrait sittings and a loan from his father to invest in land. The summers of 1856 and 1857 were spent working with brush and crayon around western Lake Superior and in a cabin he built on Pokegema Bay.

He enlisted the services of a guide, Stephen Boonga, a mixed-blood African-American and Ojibwe Native-American man, to help him build a canoe and paddle to the Apostle Islands and the cities of Duluth and Superior. In Grand Portage, Johnson made contact with the Ojibwe tribes and made a number of sketches in charcoal and oil.[1]

In 1859, Johnson reached back into his Düsseldorf training and created his first American genre painting titled Life in the South (aka: The Deep South, Negro Life at the South & Old Kentucky Home). On close examination, he did not reach too far. The painting is largely a collection of portrait sittings grouped in story-suggesting clusters about a charmingly dilapidated barn and slave residence. Taken as a whole, it is quite sappy, but the portrayals of the courting couple, the slave children and their extended family members – even the white mistress watching the scene from a hole in the fence (or is she watching the courtship of the mulatto couple?) – have a homey sincerity. Whatever the level of sugar coating, the painting managed to please both the Southerners, who saw it as an idyllic representation, and the anti-slavery North, who read into it all the evils of that peculiar institution. If it was packed with sentiment, it was American sentiment and was good enough to get him elected to the National Design Academy of New York.

Johnson took his sketch pad with him to the Civil War, following the Union Army not unlike a modern photojournalist. The most famous outcome of this five-year sojourn was his oil painting, The Wounded Drummer Boy.

During the next twenty years, Eastman Johnson became a Regionalist Realist painter, keeping himself to the East Coast and creating his most memorable works. He settled into a routine of venturing back to boyhood haunts in Fryeburg, Maine and made regular summer visits to Nantucket. He married Elizabeth Buckley in 1869 and fathered a daughter, Ethel Eastman Johnson in 1870. Many of his most charming works are of his wife and child in and around their home.

Johnson recognised something in the East that gave him comfort and there is an undercurrent of contentment in all his genre paintings of this period of his work. When not traipsing off after the Army of the Potomac throughout the 1860s, he travelled to New England. After seeing up close the destruction of war, the comfortable semi-antiquity of his homeland must have come as a relief. Since so many young men were in uniform during the war years and many didn’t come back from the battles he was left with the elderly and women and young people who were not of conscription age as his subjects. Where no people were present in his pictures, the tools they used and the interiors that sheltered them showed use and degrees of decay. They lacked a swab of whitewash or a few stones in the wall or the hearth blackened dark with soot, or a cane chair seat needing a fresh weave.

One of his most successful genre paintings was Corn Husking, exhibited in 1861 at the National Academy of Design in New York. The show opened just three weeks before the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War. No less than the 200,000 New Yorkers crowded into Union Square to support the Union cause, and Johnson had made his own pro-Union statement in this painting. Written on the barn door are the words Lincoln and Hamlin referring to Lincoln’s successful run for the presidency and his running mate from Maine, Hannibal Hamlin. New England had come out in strength for the Republican ticket during the election so the painting was as much a subtle political broadside as it was an example of fine art.

He never felt the need to fall back upon the historical ‘Down Easters’, the Puritans in knee britches or the old coaches that plied the roads. Except for his Old Stage Coach painting he sketched in pieces and then assembled in his studio. It depicts the ruin of stage coachwork without wheels or axles being reclaimed by the local vegetation and workings of the elements. But even this lamentable reminder of days past is rejuvenated by the shouts and whoops of children as they play around and upon the disintegrating shell. Boys whinny and gallop in place while drivers snap whips made of air and imagination and the girls peer out of the windows at the passing scene. All this action by the side of the road takes place under late afternoon sun and is so unforced and natural that it is impossible to imagine this captured moment was created in a studio from bits and pieces and assembled in Johnson’s mind.

All this rural hoopla fitted in with the trend that had citizens returning to their roots during and after the Civil War, paying homage to the old, uncomplicated days so prominent in imprecise memory. Books, plays, artwork all celebrated the ‘good old days’ unencumbered by the industrial revolution, crowded cities, smoke-belching steam locomotives, and the stink of a hundred backyard privies on a hot summer night. Coal gas hissing into the lamps in overstuffed apartments. The reek of crowds layered in Victorian fashion moving in clouds of scent to mask the odour of their unwashed bodies. The paintings promised open vistas, big spaces, dense forests and winding brooks, the warm dry smell of hay in a feed

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