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Facing FactsRealism in American Thought and Culture, 1850–1920$
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David E. Shi

Print publication date: 1996

Print ISBN-13: 9780195106534

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195106534.001.0001

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Realism on Canvas

Realism on Canvas

(p.126) 7 Realism on Canvas
Facing Facts

David E. Shi

Oxford University Press

The debate between realism and idealism found a ready parallel in the art community after the Civil War. In 1880, the prestigious critic S. G. W. Benjamin lamented that the new vogue in painting “is realistic, satisfied with the surfaces of the objects it represents, and not aspiring after a conception of the spiritual and the ideal.” Benjamin implored artists to disavow such literal representation of common things and common folk and instead portray beautiful subjects and explore transcendent themes. Many painters and art patrons wholeheartedly agreed with Benjamin's standard of excellence, and such “ideal” painting remained popular throughout the late 19th century. Realistic art was rooted in unmistakably American values and experiences. For many 19th-century artists, however, seeing was believing. Self-described literalists, such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Hassam Childe, sought to render in paint what was perceptible, tangible, and readily accessible to the senses.

Keywords:   realism, idealism, painting, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Hassam Childe

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