Realism in art essentially refers to composition constructed as plainly and without interpretation as possible. The movement is generally noted to have originated from France around the 1850s. Artists sought to resist the more romantic notions represented in art and also to depict the realities of the Industrial Revolution that began during this time period. The Realism art movement continues to present day and offers depictions of highly detailed and carefully planned artwork.
Common Subjects in Realism
French artists initially used realism to sarcastically depict political issues and problems. Other artists incorporated realism by painting scenes of the working class, rural and urban life and portraits dealing with the naked body. Artists strove to create works that were raw and natural -- as close to a photograph as possible. Some artists used the Realism movement to shed light on a particular plight in society by painting images that were considered "ugly" or gritty.
The Importance of Detail
Completely opposite of the soft look of romantic Impressionism, Realist painters include as much detail as possible in their work. Shadows, light reflecting off of surfaces, depth perception and perspective need to be considered carefully to create a work that looks like a viewer could reach out and touch it. For both still life and live compositions, this meant capturing the subjects with complete clarity. Traditional Realism left little room for interpretation when it came to creating the form of the subject.
The Use of Color
Early adopters of the Realist style tended to incorporate warmer hues and color palettes in their works. For instance, "The Gleaners" by Jean-Francois Millet or "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey" by Paul Delaroche both had extensive use of soft browns, warm reds, black and ivory hues. Modern-day realists still use warm palettes, but play more with cooler color combinations to create startling effects. Lucian Freud's "The Painter's Daughter" or David Hockney's "Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy" are examples of modern-day Realist paintings.
Other Realism Characteristics
As art continued to progress into the 19th century, Realism began to change and develop different subsets of Realistic work. The "Neue Sachlichkeit" or New Objectivity movement had strong German political characteristics with abstract overtones. Magic realism sought to depict real world elements with fantasy or magical ideas in a natural setting. This is slightly different that surrealism, another subset of the Realism movement that was characterized by more dream-like elements. Salvador Dali and Rene Margritte were both well-known surrealist artists. While these categories of Realism had specific themes both political and imaginative, they all shared a commonality by representing a "reality" that looked clear and realistic.