Dates: 1850-1940

Origin: International

Key Artists: Honoré Daumier, Sir Luke Fildes

A term used to describe 19th- and 20th-century painting and sculpture which is not only realistic in the sense of being representational but has a specific political or social content. The term originated in the context of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which encouraged aspirations for a shift in the balance of power in favour of the workers. For artists sympathetic to this, the harsh lives of both the rural and urban poor became recurrent themes. The French painters Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, and Honoré Daumier were the first to focus on ‘social realist’ topics, but theirs was not necessarily a realism of form. Courbet often used a palette knife to create rough, ambiguous textures and painted inconsistent patterns of light, as in The Painter’s Studio (1854–5; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), while Daumier frequently used caricatures to mock establishment figures. Such formal liberties were intended to jolt the viewer out of complacency into a fresh social outlook. A realism of factual reporting was more apparent in the paintings of the later English ‘social realist’ artists like Luke Fildes and Hubert von Herkomer, whose illustrations frequently appeared in the Graphic during the 1870s. These engravings were closely studied by van Gogh, whose early work, particularly, focused on peasant life. Paintings like Herkomer’s On Strike (1891; London, RA) and Fildes’s Applicants for Admittance to a Casual Ward (1874; Egham, Royal Holloway College) were close to current philanthropic movements in spirit, appealing to Victorian sentimentalism in portraying the deprived as working-class heroes. The term broadened its applications in the 20th century, but is frequently associated with left-wing artists like the American Ben Shahn or the Italian Renato Guttuso.

Thomas, Michelle. “Social realism.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. 11 Mar. 2010 <;

Sir Luke Fildes

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