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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Discover the importance of the art movement in which Edward Hopper was a key contributor, as well as the different strands that made up the overall Realism movement.

Artistic realism involves honesty and accuracy, avoiding intepretation and implausible invention. Romanticism had left some longing for the days of realistic depictions which had been found in more traditional art. Around the 1850s, French art started to move into a new direction, encouraging artists to move on from the dominant period of Romanticism. The strong link between art and religion during the Renaissance had meant that themes were often intepreted with imagination and it was now that art could reflect normal life, scenes that we would all comes across on a daily basis. Social realism would use such scenes to get across messages and comments on society, and these would not necessarily require bold, impactful content. There have been various realism movements in the arts, such as the opera style of verismo, literary realism, theatrical realism and Italian neorealist cinema.

The Realism Art Movement began in France in the mid-19th century after the 1848 revolution. It was not consciously adopted before the revolution. In response to the rejection of the artistic movement that was prevalent at the time, Realism emerged. Romanticism, as a literary and artistic movement, was favoured at the time. This artistic form was characterised by exaggerated emotions, intense drama, and exotic subject matter. Romanticism did not represent contemporary life or nature as it was, it instead focused on sublime scenes in nature and mythological figures in romantic paintings. The subject matter for Realism was wide as it used people in everyday life and situations from all the social classes. Artists would try to portray people, nature, and situations accurately and truthfully without glossing over the unpleasant life aspects. Realism focused on different themes such as the social climate resulting from the Industrial Revolution. The Realist artists portrayed appearances, customs, problems, lives of all classes. They represented the ignored aspects of society and contemporary life such as physical settings, mental attitudes, and material conditions.

Realism in arts is the detailed, unembellished, and accurate depiction of contemporary life or nature. Realism has no idealization of imagination. It instead favours observed appearances in their nature. Because of this nature, realism in the arts in its broad sense has many artistic variations in different civilizations. The successful emergence of the Realism Art Movement in France quickly spread across Europe and to America who adopted the movement opposing Classism and Romanticism. Although born out of social defiance of institutionalized painting traditions, its ideologies were widespread and supported the implementation of state-sponsored art academies. The Realist genre was not radical as its predecessors.

Characteristics of Realism Art Movement

The Realist painting styles spread to all genres. Artists painted history portraits, landscapes, and genre paintings. There was several subject matter used by the artists. Mostly working-class life in rural and urban scenes, cafes and nightclubs, street-life scenes, as well as sensual subjects and nudity. Realism abolished the “ideal” art of classism and Romanticism, favoring the ordinary. Artists were free to paint real-life situations stripped of universal truths. Realism depicted a highly influential and progressive shift in the function and significance of art. The Realism art style has retained the influence it had in visual arts to the modern-day. The movement focused on unidealized subjects ignored in the artwork. It depicted people's situations as a result of commercial and industrial revolutions. Gustave Courbet led the art movement in France. The American Realism Art Movement was influenced by Thomas Eakins and Edward Hopper etc.

American Realism and Influence

American artists adopted the Realism Art Movement after its success in Europe. The influence of the art form was stimulated by intellectual developments such as the anti-Romantic movement in Germany. The rise of professional journalism that was dispassionate and accurate in events recording was influenced and stimulated by the Realism art movement. Photography was also developed with the capability of reproducing accurately visual subjects thus stimulating interests in depicting society and contemporary life as it is. Portraits by Thomas Eakins and Edward Hoppers showing modern city life influenced the mindset of many art lovers to take on Realism as an art form and embrace it. French portraits showed the results of the revolution on social life while Edward Hopper tried to depict city life as it was, bringing everyday city life into his paintings.

Realism gave birth to modern art. With a conviction of depicting the modern world and everyday life as its subjects, Realism embraced modernism with progressive aims by turning traditional beliefs and values. The American Realism, through its artists, showed concern with the structures of life economically, socially, and politically. It represented nature and city life accurately with portraits of city nightlife, cafes, streets, bridges, lighthouses, and landscapes. Realism was the first nonconformist and anti-institutional art movement. With the explosion of mass media and newspaper printing around the industrial revolution, Realism brought the perspective of artists as self-publicists.

American Realism style was in art, literature, and music. It depicted the lives and everyday activities and contemporary social realities of ordinary people. The beginning of the 20th century had a generation of painters, journalists, and writers that influenced modern-day culture. Artists such as Thomas Eakins, William Merrit Chase, Edward Hopper, etc. Their portraits represented more of the city life and its population hence more urban than rural America. In the 20th century, America underwent a major economic, industrial, cultural, and social change. Through the artistic expressions, American Realism portrayed the cultural exuberance and exhaustion of the lives of ordinary Americans and the landscapes. Literary works and music also changed fast responding to the shift in the era. Realism inspired art movements such as Hyperrealism and Photorealism.

Edward Hopper

Hopper was a New York painter born in Nyack, Hudson River. Raised in a two-floor house that influenced some of his paintings with a resemblance to his childhood home, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Edward Hopper House Art Centre has a sponsorship residency program that gives artists a chance for accommodation and art lessons. Edward Hopper's works that shaped modern art are displayed in different art museums including his own home on the first floor. Most of his items and paintings are preserved as they emphasize his career.

Edward Hopper and other American artists such as George Bellows, Joan Sloan, and Robert Henri had a sociological point of view that the city defined what was real with both immaterial and material aspects. These artists’ art is considered to have given birth to American modern art. These portraits influenced the American culture and art to what it is today in the modern era. American Realism influenced pop culture in the early years before the rise of music and film industries made impacts significantly on cultural development. Americans used Realism to monopolize democracy and urbanity image.

Edward Hopper had art teachers such as Robert Henri and William Merrit Chase, with classmates such as George Bellows at the New York School of Art. No other artist managed to capture the solitude within the modern city and its lifelike Edward Hopper. He had a way of blending light with light's absence to create shadows in wonderful and strange ways. Hopper was able to depict the moods and looks of Americans during the Great Depression. Here are some of the great works of Edward Hopper that influenced modern art culture:

  • NightHawks (1942)
  • Shadows (1921)
  • Sailing (1911)
  • House by the Railroad (1925)
  • Girlie Show (1941)
  • Summer interior (1909)

Hopper inspired countless painters, filmmakers, dancers, writers, photographers, and set designers. His influence in art touched artists in various media including Tony Oursler, Mark Rothko, George Segal, etc. He inspired photographers such as Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, and others. Many creations of poems, music albums, stories, and themes came to light with inspirations from Edward Hopper's paintings and works.