Realism came naturally to American artists. From the colonial period onward, American artists and patrons
preferred the straightforward depiction of ordinary people over the more sophisticated mythological and
historical paintings preferred by Europeans. American painters never really acquired the academic mindset
that the realist painters in France rebelled against, so the works by American artists of the late nineteenth
century do not have the same revolutionary quality.
Winslow Homer’s painting of country children at
play in Snap the Whip depicts working-class
children, but it is not an image of their
backbreaking work. Instead, the painting is a
nostalgic scene of innocent exuberance. Thomas
Eakins’ realism in The Gross Clinic is more brutal,
but it too has little political content. The Gross
Clinic is a group portrait centered on the image of
Dr. Samuel Gross, a famous surgeon at the
Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Eakins’
use of light, his rough impasto, and the composition itself recall works by Rembrandt. Eakins, however,
gives us a clear view of the bloody procedure, an operation on the thigh. In spite of much criticism, Eakins
held fast to the idea that art should show what really exists.
Impressionism is a form of realism because the Impressionists painted what they saw and used subject
matter of their own time, but they are rarely overtly political. Impressionist paintings typically show
bourgeois people engaged in leisure activities, or they depict landscapes that put more emphasis on light
than on workers or politically charged scenes. The Impressionists knew each other, exchanged ideas, and
exhibited together from 1874 to 1886 in shows independent of the official salons.
Even though the Impressionists each developed an individual style, there are several important interests
that they shared. First, Impressionists were interested in contemporary scientific research about how the
eye perceives light and color. As a result, some of the Impressionists became interested in the interaction
of color, while others created compositions that appear to be more natural, as if they are something we
might see in a glance. Second, the Impressionists were interested in photography, especially in the way
that a camera can record an instant in time. Third, many of them were interested in Japanese prints, which
came into France at this time in large numbers. Japanese prints offered a new way to depict space without
using linear perspective. The Impressionists were also fascinated with other effects common in the
Japanese prints: cut-off figures, asymmetrical compositions, and flat colors, for instance.
Claude Monet is often seen as the quintessential Impressionist, although no other Impressionist produced
series of landscapes like he did. Nevertheless, it is one of his works, Impression: Sunrise,that gave the
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