Reality and realism, as we use them, refer to two different things but are not unrelated. Let’s turn to the dictionary to begin. The philosophical definition comes closest for our purpose in this essay. Reality is: “The sum of all that is real, absolute, and unchangeable.” This eliminates all “form” including art, so we are not in danger of confusing reality with realism which is a “style” of art prevalent in the last two centuries, but it is better not to be rigid about the time frame.
For the word realism we will use the definition as applied to art. Realism is: “Artistic representation or treatment that aims or is felt to be visually accurate.”
The artists that pioneered realism, at least according to art critics, had much more in mind and were inspired by much more than so-called photographic likenesses. Some art historians say that the Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio (1565-1609) was the first realist. He was certainly an iconoclast and a genius capable of breaking tradition and he did.
Later critics give the title of “father of realism” to the French social revolutionary, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). His painting has been described as a reaction to the deleterious effects of the Industrial Revolution on European society. He was influenced by the philosophy of the French utopian socialist Pierre Proudhon (1809-1865). Courbet influenced his contemporaries Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) who painted rural people and scenes, and Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) who was famous for Parisian realism.
It is satisfying to understand the historical context of all forms of art and to see how all of form is an expression of the narrative that contains it; but more importantly it is essential to realize that art is an expression of beauty. To feel the beauty of art in the present moment—that is the most profound experience of reality that any of us will ever have.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.