Ask the Expert…Realist Art Resource

Question: What defines realism?


A Path to Realism: Classical Training, by Realist Art Resource


Bouguereau’s Atelier at Academie Julian, Jefferson David Chalfant

While the term Realism has been inconsistently used throughout art history, the Realist Art Resource (RAR) prefers to define it broadly as an artistic style, rather than a specific movement or subject matter. This style of art is chiefly concerned with depicting subjects realistically, i.e. the subject is depicted as believable, whether it is imaginary, actual, or idealized. In this sense, then, Realism spans many centuries and many artistic movements, and encompasses a myriad of artists. However, nearly all the artists we consider to be Realists, from Andrea del Sarto to John Singer Sargent to Pietro Annigoni, have had two key things in common: skill-based training and an interest in depicting subjects in a life-like, but by no means hyperrealistic or photorealistic, way.

Candidates for Admission to the Paris Salon, Felicien Myrbach-Rheinfeld

These combined tenets have been experiencing a strong revival in the form of a contemporary movement called “Classical Realism”, more recently described as “The Atelier Movement”, terms coined by Richard Lack and Graydon Parrish respectively. Of any contemporary, skill-based art education it has the strongest ties to a storied artistic tradition primarily because of the training it offers known as “classical training” or “academic training”. For the sake of simplicity we will be discussing this pedagogical tradition as it pertains to painting only.

An Opening Day at the Palais des Champs-Élysées, Jean-André Rixens

Institutions that offer classical training usually have a curriculum based on that of the 17th-19th century Royal Academies of Europe and Russia, and the ateliers that operated in conjunction and competition with them. The curricula of said institutions often included figure drawing and painting, master copying in museums, anatomy, cast drawing, and composition . The aim of this style of education was to achieve the highest technical ability, in order to prepare an artist for life as a history painter. At that time history painting was considered the most important genre, and it encompassed all forms of narrative. It was therefore imperative that artists also be familiar with ancient mythologies, history, literature, and the Bible as sources for subject matter. Today the idea that technical ability is paramount continues to bond Classical Realism’s constituents together. Due to changes in popular culture, however, there is less of an interest in mythological, historical, literary, and Biblical narratives among Classical Realists today.

quest for beauty
Last Day of Corinth by Tony Robert-Fleury

Further exploration of this tradition can help elucidate why it fell out of favor and why it is experiencing such a strong revival today. During the 17th-19th centuries, the Royal Academies maintained a stylistic monopoly over art culture by curating exhibitions known as Salons. The juries of these Salons, comprised of Royal Academicians , were very selective of acceptable subject matter and styles of painting. By 1863 the scene had become so overrun, though, that rejected works from the Paris Salon (arguably the most famous one) numbered in the thousands and had to be displayed in a new exhibition called the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused). Although the Salons may not have initially accepted the work of avant-garde artists like Monet, the academies and ateliers associated with the Salons were largely responsible for educating such artists. This fact has been conspicuously forgotten when maligning the Royal Academies and by extension their pedagogies, but is essential to understand the oeuvre of many avant garde artists. While the repressive nature of the Salons cannot be denied, those critical of them rarely acknowledge their positive influence, namely upholding high standards of technical mastery.

cast drawing sargent
The Dancing Faun, after the Antique, John Singer Sargent

Despite their dedication to technical achievement and their objective standards for teaching it, the Royal Academicians were eventually replaced with academicians concerned with ideas, rather than skill. The Salon des Refusés, of which there were four, and subsequent avant-garde exhibitions demonstrated that skill-based education was not a necessity in terms of monetary success and public recognition. Thus, a pedagogy several centuries old was largely abandoned, dismissed as an offensive remnant of the past. Despite these roadblocks, the classical training persisted into the present day through various limited channels (see the artistic lineages linked below) and began to be revisited around the 1960’s. This revival began roughly a decade after students at both Harvard University and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts intentionally smashed portions of their cast collections in an effort to further break from the classical tradition (Merás). Fortunately, classically trained artists today know that their education does not dictate the path of their career or even their style of painting. We now see them exploring a wider range of artistic fields including: video game design, tattooing, movie CGI, cartooning, and illustration, while often continuing to paint on the side.

The Life Class at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Wilhelm Bendz

While the seed of this Realist revival may have been planted in the late 1960’s with Atelier Lack, its proliferation began with the second generation of artists who established their own schools (Torres). The United States alone currently boasts over 40 such institutions. In spite of this revival, classical training is still not widely offered in public institutions (universities, or extant Royal Academies alike) and pursuing it is still actively discouraged by most Western universities. Due to its affiliation with the academies of the past, classical training is continually derided as unoriginal, anachronistic, repressive, elitist, and/or irrelevant. Many still consider it an inherently biased style of art, i.e. to be a Realist artist is to invalidate other types of artistic representation. Despite these harsh criticisms, schools offering classical training continue to grow. So, just as the Royal Academies’ repressive system perhaps cultivated the avant-garde, so to is the push for conceptual and abstract art ironically renewing an interest in skill-based studio art education.

Despite pressure from various non-representational art movements, classical training persisted into the 21st century. Nowadays classically trained artists are in a unique position. Free from the constraints of the Salons and able to investigate ideas put forth by the avant-garde, they can now explore uncharted territory in the realm of Realism. Furthermore, by communicating in a visual style that is universally decipherable, Realist painters have the ability to reach an incredibly wide audience. Yet, the first step in any artistic endeavor, whether it be dance, writing, or music, is the full mastery of one’s craft. Just as an author could not write a novel without knowing grammar, so too must the painter master his medium, and classical training is a time-honored method by which to attain that mastery.

Suggested Reading:
Artistic Family Tree by Timothy Stotz.
Artistic Family Tree by Golden Gate Atelier  .

Paquette, Jonathan. Classical Realist Art: The Continuance of Representational Painting.

Louis Torres. The Legacy of Richard Lack. 2006
Méras, Phyllis. The Historic Shops & Restaurants of Boston. New York: Little Bookroom, 2007. Print.

Visit the Realist Art Resource website for more information.

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