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Street Scene (Hester Street) by George Benjamin | © Brooklyn Museum/WikiCommons
Street Scene (Hester Street) by George Benjamin | © Brooklyn Museum/WikiCommons

An Introduction To American Realism In 12 Works

Picture of Courtney Stanley
Updated: 14 October 2016
At the turn of the century, contemporary art strayed from classical ideas and aesthetics associated with Romanticism and the Renaissance and shifted towards more ‘realistic’ depictions. Artists painted what they saw in real life, often creating gritty, dismal, and urban landscapes in America. Realism was defined by a group of eight artists pejoratively called the Ashcan School who painted the everyday lives of normal people in New York City’s poor neighborhoods.

Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows

Bellows’ 1909 Stag at Sharkey’s shows off his penchant for painting violence. His artworks feature bold colors and, as in this one, often depict gory, brutal scenes. Bellows’ short, fast brushstrokes create a blurred effect that shows fluid movement in the work, which is seen from the point of view of a spectator. These two boxers were fighting in an athletic club located across from his studio. A ‘stag’ was an outsider who fought in the ring with a temporary membership to the club.

Snow in New York by Robert Henri

Henri’s works typically focused on individuals, but he also liked to turn his eye to the dirty cityscapes of New York City, as in this snowy, drab scene. Henri said that beauty could be found anywhere and everywhere, but it should be found in real life as opposed to theories or classic ideas of art. In this painting, he set the scene of a typical street with normal brownstone apartments, and the painting has a calm feeling set by the fresh snow on the ground, not yet all grayed into slush by the grimy city. You can imagine the loud city streets would be quieted by the layer of snow on the ground.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Hopper was taught by Robert Henri, who instructed his students to forget about art and paint what interested them in life. Hopper shows a Modern flare in his Realist paintings, like in this 1942 oil-on-canvas work Nighthawks, which is his most famous work of art. The painting portrays a scene of a downtown diner late at night. Unlike some of the Realist painters, Hopper utilizes some bright, bold colors. The painting is geometric with shapes and diagonal lines carefully constructed, and the viewpoint is cinematic.

Street Scene (Hester Street) by George Benjamin Luks

Created in 1905, Luks’ Hester Street shows a bustling scene of daily life in the Lower East Side of New York, a neighborhood notorious for housing immigrants. At the time of the painting, the Lower East Side was home to many newly arrived Eastern European Jews. The warm, energetic scene shows several different interactions of groups of people, including a puppeteer and a group of children. The city street is packed with people going about their daily lives and business at the open-air market; this work has been described as portraying an ‘unvarnished urban subject.’

McSorley’s Bar by John French Sloan

McSorley’s is the oldest Irish tavern in New York City, located in Manhattan’s East Village. Sloan created this painting in 1912, and he did at least two other paintings set in the bar, including McSorley’s Back Room and McSorley’s Saturday Night. The collection of paintings shows the day-to-day lives of the Irish working class. Sloan was a well-known artist of his time, but he sold little and had to supplement his income with freelance work.

East River Park by William Glackens

Glackens painted many of his artworks in the parks of New York City. This particular work shows off the natural features of the East River Park in contrast with the dingy sight of Brooklyn across the water. The park has a tranquil, quiet feel, while across the busy river, smokestacks pour smog into the gray sky. The parks in New York City acted as an escape of sorts for many immigrants who were forced to live in the close, cramped rooms of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

New York by George Bellows

Bellows’ 1911 work shows a city humming with life, as figures, carriages, and cars move every direction through the streets, and high-rises covered in advertisements stretch to the sky. The painting is very in-your-face with its hectic mood, and it is especially aggressive when compared to some of Bellows’ quieter portrayals of New York City. The painting is like a mosaic of life in the early 1900s, and you can almost feel the rhythm of the city.

Summer Interior by Edward Hopper

Hopper’s Summer Interior, painted in 1909, shows something that doesn’t often crop up in popular Realist paintings – nudity. Yet the woman’s lowered gaze and her drab surroundings paint a picture of city living from the interior perspective. The bedroom, which has a cramped, hot feeling, is mostly bare and disheveled, and the woman wears only a simple, white shirt. This painting, again, blends Realism and Modernism.

The Canfield Gambling House by Everett Shinn

Here we are presented with another drab scene of urban life in New York City. It’s winter, and by the looks of the couple hurrying away under an umbrella, it’s quite cold outside. A horse, carriage, and driver wait in front of the gambling house, and both figures look rather unhappy to be out in the quiet, snow and ice-covered streets.

The Soda Fountain by William Glackens

Glackens often changed his painting style and his subject matter throughout his life. Although he started off painting grimy urban scenes, he was influenced by Impressionism and soon broke free from ‘true’ American Realism. Glackens started painting picturesque landscapes and beach scenes as well as portraits and still-lifes. His 1935 work The Soda Fountain, which was his last painting, used vibrant colors much unlike his earlier scenes of city life, and it showed a decadence that was often not present in works of Realism. This painting breaks from Realism in many ways, but it is fascinating to see the influences of Realism Glackens carried through to his later style.

Cliff Dwellers by George Bellows

Bellows’ 1913 painting Cliff Dwellers is another of his most famous, showing a crowd of people gathered outside in New York City’s Lower East Side. Lines of laundry are strung across the street and adults and children flood the streets, fill the fire escapes, and lounge on the stoops, presumably warm with summer heat. The colors are quite monochromatic, featuring many shades of brown, and the painting shows just how densely packed the immigrant neighborhoods were in the early 20th century.

Fruit Stand Coney Island by William Glackens

Fruit Stand Coney Island is another work by Glackens that portrays a dull, dark-hued scene. As this is one of his early works – it was painted in 1898 – the painting doesn’t have the color that was present in his later creations. His early work focused solely on scenes of daily life, and this particular painting shows a number of figures surrounding a simple fruit stand.