A Return to Realism

Dean Larson, Studio Interior [1998], oil, 46 x 42. painting, southwest art.
Dean Larson, Studio Interior [1998], oil, 46 x 42.

By Norman Kolpas

A century and a half ago, an artistic movement widely known as Realism developed in France under the brushes of such artists as Gustave Courbet, Jean François Millet, and Honoré Daumier. They reacted to the prevailing Romanticism of their day by portraying what they saw as real life, from the toil of country folk to the plight of urban dwellers. Realism, in turn, paved the way for the turn-of-the-century Impressionist movement, which used everyday life as subject matter for artworks that presented reality in a ravishing new light.

Then, as surely as World War I ravaged Europe, that era’s advent of modernism abruptly overshadowed some seven decades of realistic art. Cubism, Fauvism, expressionism, minimalism, surrealism, abstraction, and a host of other movements marching under the modernist banner captivated the imaginations of collectors, teachers, and critics alike. These anti-realists came to dominate the world of 20th-century art.

But Realism never died. You might say, instead, that it went underground: taught in a few diehard schools and ateliers; practiced by a small cadre of dedicated artists; sold by galleries, bought by collectors, and shown by a handful of museums that still saw true value in representational art.

Bob Kuhn, Ursa Major [1993], acrylic, 24 x 36.  painting, southwest art.
Bob Kuhn, Ursa Major [1993], acrylic, 24 x 36.

And today, at the dawn of a new century, Realism has emerged anew. As representational art enjoys tremendous restored popularity nationwide, we examine its resurgence through the keen perceptions of the people most closely involved in its revival: the gallery owners, artists and teachers, auction experts, and museum curators who have kept the movement alive and nurtured it back to thriving new prominence.

The Gallery Perspective
“When I moved to San Francisco 25 years ago, there were no galleries dealing in Realist art, except by dead artists,” says John Pence, owner of John Pence Gallery, one of the nation’s leading outposts of Realism. “It really was lonely when I opened because our shows never received any press locally. Realism has been nearly a taboo subject, and the press’s most powerful weapon is to ignore you. If they denounced you, it would be fun.”

William Barnes, Crazy Whisper [2000], casein on panel, 13 1/2 x 22 1/2. Barnes isrepresented by van de Griff Gallery. painting, southwest art.
William Barnes, Crazy Whisper [2000], casein on panel, 13 1/2 x 22 1/2. Barnes isrepresented by van de Griff Gallery

That said, Pence’s devotion to such representational artists as Randall Lake, Dean Larson, Dorothy Morgan, and Jacob Collins has paid off, particularly with collectors’ rising interest in recent years. “The market is definitely continuing to grow, with our business now increasing about 15 to 20 percent each year,” Pence says.

The growth has been even more dramatic at van de Griff Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, according to Klaudia Marr, its director for the past four years. “The market for Realism is unbelievably thriving. Our sales of Realist work have increased about 40 percent in the last year,” she says, pointing out that the gallery actually has waiting lists for works by artists like William Barnes, David Hines, Robert Brawley, and John Nava.

Jacob Collins, Violin Still Life [2000], oil, 24 x 36.  painting, southwest art.
Jacob Collins, Violin Still Life [2000], oil, 24 x 36.

Such demand may be attributed, in part, to the many new collectors who have prospered in the recent economic good times. “A lot of young, first-time buyers are comfortable with Realism,” observes Tom Carson, who opened Carson Gallery in Denver, CO, 28 years ago. Adds David Katz, owner of Coda Gallery—which has branches in Palm Desert, CA, Park City, UT, and New York City”—People want something they can relate to. They’re finally getting away from buying with their ears just because some critics—who don’t know what they’re talking about half the time—say that a particular kind of art is being bought by museums.”

The Artist’s Perspective
Whether through neglect or out-and-out dismissal by most modernist-minded critics, Realist artists often suffered through the middle to late decades of the 20th century. “At parties in New York in the late 1970s, if I told people I was doing representational art they would walk to the other side of the room,” recalls Gary Faigin, a magical realist painter and founder of the Seattle Academy of Fine Art.

Burton Silverman, 100 Million Prizes [1997], oil, 24 x 20 1/2.  painting, southwest art.
Burton Silverman, 100 Million Prizes [1997], oil, 24 x 20 1/2.

Award-winning New York-based figurative painter Burton Silverman experienced a similar lack of interest in his work for many years. “Between 1961 and the early ’80s,” he says, “it was very dry and tough. The domination of the modernist sensibility was so pervasive that it undermined the validity of representational painting.” And David A. Leffel, an artist and teacher now based in Santa Fe, NM, found his now-renowned still-life and figurative paintings dismissed four decades ago. “When people saw my work in the early 1960s, one of the essential comments was, ‘What you’re doing has all been done before,’” he says.

All three artists acknowledge that times have changed for the better. As Leffel sees it, however, the reason is largely that “the whole abstract field seems to have used itself up, and there are no strong modernist trends to capture the imaginations of galleries or curators or the public. Realism is just going along as it always has and is there to fill the void.”

“People are beginning to see that modernism was a dead end,” adds Christopher Young, one of the many young Utah-based representational artists enjoying success today. A painter of still lifes and landscapes, Young benefited from the “very traditional arts training” offered at Brigham Young University. “We’re seeing a renewed demand and appreciation for training and craftsmanship in art,” he says.

The Auction Perspective
“To be a good Realist painter, you need to have the kind of formal training that we’ve witnessed for centuries,” observes Robert Looker, head of the department of 20th-century art at Christie’s in Los Angeles. Looker thinks that many of today’s hot Realists “will soon be getting a lot of attention in the secondary market” at the top auction houses.

In some leading venues, however, they are already in high demand. Take wildlife artist Bob Kuhn. His painting Ursa Major originally sold at the 1993 National Academy of Western Art show for $30,000. At last year’s Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, according to Stuart Johnson—an event organizer and owner of Settlers West Galleries in Tucson, AZ—that same work fetched $71,500. “It’s a great painting by one of the top artists in the field,” Johnson concludes.

Whether dealing with artists’ training or artwork sales, Ruth Kaspar enjoys a unique perspective on the rise of Realism. As director of the Scottsdale Artists’ School from 1993 until mid-1999, she “saw an increasing number of students learning to paint realistically, with attendance and interest way up.”

For the past 22 years, Kaspar has also served as liaison between the Phoenix Art Museum and the Cowboy Artists of America for the annual sale by that stellar group of western Realists. For the past four years now, the sale has topped the $2 million mark, and a painting by Howard Terpning alone fetched $185,000 at the event last October. Across our culture, Kaspar notes, “We’re seeing a return to basics. And when collectors look back and see a Charlie Russell or a Frederic Remington painting increase in value, they can understand the appeal of these traditional Realist works.”

The Museum Perspective
With his own connection to the annual Cowboy Artists of America sale as director and curator of American art at the Phoenix Art Museum, Jim Ballinger thinks that Realism is “absolutely on the rise.” As the best example of that phenomenon, he points to the much-acclaimed touring exhibition of Norman Rockwell’s works, Pictures for the American People, on exhibition at the museum from January 27 through May 6. “In the history of art,” he says by way of explaining Realism’s newfound popularity, “the pendulum of style swings back and forth. And within museums, there’s a pluralism now, looking at broader audiences and connecting with them in broader ways.”

Even the few museums in the nation that have always dedicated themselves solely to Realism see a positive shift in the public’s perceptions. “There are more museums and galleries showing representational art,” says John O’Hern, director of the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY. A superb collection of 17th-to19th-century Euro-pean and 19th- and 20th-century American art, the Arnot shifted its primary focus to contemporary representational art during the past decade and since 1992 has had great success with its biennial series entitled Re-presenting Representation.

“I think very sophisticated art lovers are looking at Realism with new respect,” says Richard V. West, director of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Dedicated to “celebrating the tradition and contemporary practice of representational art,” the Frye mounts regular shows of today’s best Realists to complement a permanent collection that includes works by such past representational masters as Nicolai Fechin, John Sloan, and Maurice Prendergast. It also offers foundational studio courses “for younger artists who have gone through art schools and are beginning to realize that they’ve learned the concepts and issues of modernism but have not been provided with the tools and skills to transform their thoughts into visual art.”

A New York Perspective

Talk to any group of artists or gallery owners dedicated to Realism and you’ll find one place invariably mentioned as the last bastion to be conquered: New York City, whose museums, curators, and critics all championed modernism throughout the 20th century. Even in New York, however, attitudes are changing. Regarding representational art, says Kevin Jones of J. Cacciola Galleries, “There’s an energy in the air that’s different than it was just a few years ago. Realistic painting has a real vibrancy.”

Michael L. Gitlitz, associate director in the department of European art at New York’s Hirschl & Adler Galleries, sees a rise of Realism “in the dozens, if not hundreds, of portfolios that now land on my desk every year from all around the country and the artists who spontaneously show up in my office.”

“A phenomenon has really been happening, and in a surprising paradox, New York is a sort of backwater,” says Jacob Collins, a widely respected young painter who draws inspiration from da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Ingres, and the members of the 19th-century Hudson River School for his still lifes and portraits.

As a teenager in Manhattan in the early 1980s, Collins tried to imagine life as a painter in the classical Realist mode. “It seemed bleak back then,” he recalls. “I hardly saw anybody making the kind of art I was interested in.” Today, Collins is helping to create in New York the kind of thriving representational art world of which he once could barely dream. He runs the Water Street Atelier in Brooklyn, where other like-minded artists can go to learn centuries-old skills, much as their forebears did during the Renaissance. Collins and his fellow artists are taking part in a new Renaissance that is sweeping the country—a modern rebirth of Realism.

Featured in January 2001