American RealismOne of the most persistent hallmarks of American art, painting in particular, is our fondness for Realism (with a capital "R"). The French think they invented the style, citing artists such as Gustave Courbet of Camille Corot, but long before that, since colonial times and John Singleton Copley or Charles Wilson Peale, one might even go so far as to say realism has been the predominant style of art in this country. And it's still alive and well in this century in the work of Andrew Wyeth for instance. Americans have, at times, flirted boldly with everything from seductive Romanticism to harsh abstraction, but again and again, the same, no-nonsense, Yankee pragmatism that says hot dogs should be the same length as the bun, or that the popcorn is just as important than the movie, exerts itself and we find hard-edged, you-can-tell-exactly-what-it-is painting continuing to dominate even in the most snooty, upper-crust art galleries.
Each century has its "King of Realism." I might mention Copley from the eighteenth century and Wyeth from the twentieth. During the nineteenth century two names compete for top honours--Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Homer is much more Romantic. Eakins, on the other hand, is so nearly his opposite, so analytically cut and dried, even dramatically so, that what we have are two extremes which, together, mark the outer boundaries of what American Realism is all about. Homer started as a Civil War illustrator (a foundry of realism if there ever was one). After the war, he studied Corot and Courbet in France and found their style matched his first name--Yankee (I kid you not). In returning to the U.S., his style matured over his lifetime, becoming somewhat more "arty" perhaps, but never losing sight of the American tradition for "just the facts, ma'am."
One has only to catch a glimpse of Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic, painted in 1875, to recognise it as one of perhaps two or three of the greatest American paintings of the nineteenth century (all of which were rigidly realistic). There are elements of Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp though Eakins goes beyond this prototype in depicting not only the "facts," but the drama, even the emotion of the moment as one of the patient's female relatives hides her face, unable to stand the sight of her kinsman's open incision. Eakins' skill at portraiture is immediately apparent, but so is his compositional skills in the seemingly spontaneous grouping of the figures that in fact, hides any apparent studied arrangement that might in any way detract from the naturalness of his presentation. If art imitates science, only in America is there an art so realistic that it attempts to become a science.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
7 August 1999