american art

from the colonial period to world war two

Winslow Homer, Dressing for the Carnival, 1877

Charles Wilson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822

Raphaelle Peale, Venus after the Bath, 1822

Thomas Eakins The Gross Clinic, 1875

Thomas Eakins, William Rush Carving the Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River, 1877

Winslow Homer, Prisoner from the Front, 1866

american realism


people, terms, and concepts: realism, trompe l'oeil, John James Audubon

realism (with a lower-case 'r')

“Realism” has often been cited as a defining characteristic of American art of the nineteenth century -- but remember that the term realism has a lot of different definitions and connotations, including:

(a) a tightly painted and highly detailed style, sometimes going as far as trompe l'oeil;

(b) subject matter taken from everyday life, rather than from history, fiction, or the imagination;

(c) a clinically dispassionate and objective attitude toward that subject-matter, and an avoidance of melodramatic sentimentality or overt spirituality;

(d) a concentration on common, lower-class, and gritty subjects, as opposed to epic, heroic, and idealized subjects;

(e) works that appear to be an unstaged glimpse of what they are representing, as opposed to obviously contrived and theatrical compositions.

There are a lot of other shades of meanings of the term. Note that some works may be realistic in one sense but not in another, so you will usually have to define how you are using the term 'realism' whenever you use it. Also, don’t forget that realism not necessarily truthful (see question 2).

American Realism (with a capital 'R')

Around the mid-nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic there was an art movement called Realism (capitalized when it refers to this movement). We looked closely at two artists who represent the American branch of Realism, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, neither of whom practiced a trompe l'oeil style (a), but both of whom were largely realistic in their subject-matter (b & d), and objective in their approach to it (c & e).  Think of Eakins’s interest in science and scientists; and think about the difference between Copley’s portraits, where the face is set among a set of generic cultural symbols of wealth and status; and Eakins’s, where the sitter is placed within an environment and shown involved in an activity that is specific to their particular interests or expertise.  Think also of the way Eakins' belief in close study of the nude got him in trouble at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  Think of Homer’s early career as a journalist documenting the Civil War for Harper’s Magazine.  Although many of Homer’s works do tend to have “deeper” meanings relating to post-war reconstruction, to childhood pedagogy, to the struggle between man and nature, and perhaps even subconscious psycho-sexual content, his subject matter is always ordinary and his approach is that of straightforward, matter-of-fact documentary.

Readings: Craven chs. 11, 23 (pp. 329-42), and 24

{}Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as www.artstor.org.  Please email me by Monday at 11 pm with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.


     1)  There are several works by Charles Willson Peale and his many children in your textbook.  In what senses can the Peale family's approach to art be seen as "realistic"?  Analyze specific works to make your points, and carefully explaining what sense(s) of the term realism apply to the works.  Email me your work choices by Monday evening.

     2)  The appearance of realism (in any of its many senses) can be used to disguise or validate what is actually a distinctly biassed message or false impression.  Give examples of that phenomenon in 3-4 of the works from across the webpage study guides for this exam period.  How do the works give the impression of realism?  How are their messages actually biassed?  Email me your choices of work by Monday evening.