Comparing French Impressionism & Realism in the Works of Homer & Sargent

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  • 0:02 The American 19th Century
  • 1:00 Winslow Homer
  • 2:47 John Singer Sargent
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the use of both realism and impressionism by American artists in the 19th century. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The American 19th Century

In this chapter, we've talked a lot about the 19th century in Europe. Economies were strong. Art flourished along with technology. Two painting styles emerged that dominated the scene. First was realism, which strove to accurately depict daily scenes of average life. Next was impressionism, a style devoted to using color and light to capture the essence of a passing moment. This was Europe in the 19th century. Well, guess what? I have a secret for you, a little-known art history secret: America had a 19th century, too.

There it is, the big secret! America had a 19th century, characterized by things like the Civil War, abolishment of slavery, assassination of Lincoln, industrialization, and westward expansion - those sorts of things. In the midst of this growth and change, American artists still found time to paint, and what they created reflected French styles, but with an American twist.

Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer was one of those American artists. A journalist during the Civil War, Homer began painting in the realist style, which was becoming very popular in the United States. Homer's paintings followed realist trends in the generally accurate portrayal of daily life. His seascapes are amongst his most famous works. Breezing Up, completed in 1873, realistically depicts a small fishing boat and a family with their catch, tossing in the waves. Despite the realism, there is a level of symbolism that Homer always included. The fishermen look relaxed, unworried about the waves. The anchor represents hope and the boy looking forward represents the American optimism of the late 19th century, growing after a long civil war.

Painting: Breezing Up

Homer's attention to the symbolism of his art occasionally pulled him away from strict realism and introduced other stylistic elements. Veteran in a New Field, painted in 1865, depicts a Civil War veteran harvesting his crop. In one sense, this is optimistic. The soldier has cast aside his uniform, shown in the bottom right corner, and has comfortably converted back to civilian life. But there is also another meaning. Winslow chose to depict the soldier using an old-fashioned scythe, not the kind used in 1865, to draw a comparison to the grim reaper and the many lives cut down by the war. To help create this image and meaning, Homer deviated from true realism. Look at the rough brushstrokes, the lack of detail in the wheat. By using a more impressionist style, this painting captures not the details of a moment but the fleeting nature of it. This is not a moment to be forever remembered, just the resumption of daily, fleeting life.

Veteran in a New Field by Homer
Painting: Veteran in a New Field

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