Social Realism: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

Social Realism: Definition, Characteristics & Examples
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  • 0:03 Social Realism
  • 2:17 Characteristics
  • 2:54 Examples
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

An art movement that focused on the lives of common folk, Social Realism took the world by storm in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this lesson, we'll learn about the art movement and look at examples of art created during the period.

Social Realism

The iconic painting American Gothic by Grant Wood and the photograph Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange are often referred to as exemplar pieces of Social Realism art. Social Realism was an art movement brought on by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the Great Depression in America. In this lesson, we discuss the definition of Social Realism, explore the main characteristics of the movement, and look at pieces that exemplify these characteristics.

Social Realism took place in the twentieth century and around the globe. If we look at each word individually, we can figure out what Social Realism was about. The word 'social' refers to the people in society, and 'realism' refers to the way these people were portrayed in each medium. Artists, including photographers, painters, sculptors, and printmakers, created art that represented the everyday lives of common, working folks.

Artists wanted to show how the world really was and not how artists of the past, including impressionists and abstract artists, made it out to be. Romantic, frivolous notions were discarded for the gritty, harsh characteristics that defined the world after the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression.

Social Realism was a vehicle for artists to discuss the current social and economic situations in their countries. In America, Social Realism was motivated by the Great Depression, a time when millions of Americans were left without jobs or food. Artist Ben Shahn was a major proponent of Social Realism with his agricultural posters and paintings depicting the devastation of the agricultural economy across the states.

After the Industrial Revolution, Realism was alive and well during the nineteenth century as demonstrated by the work of Hubert von Herkomer, Charley Toorop, and Max Beckmann. German artist Käthe Kollwitz created Praying Woman, Mother with her Dead Son, and Woman with Dead Child to show how the hardships of war and the economy affected women. Woman with Dead Child shows a grieving woman cradling a dead child in her arms.


While we've talked about what Social Realism is and what it looks like, here's a list of characteristics commonly found in Social Realist art. Keep it in mind while we look at some examples:

  • Artwork that gives accurate portrayal of the scene and characters without embellishments
  • Artwork that points of political and economic corruption
  • Artwork that shows how the poor are living
  • Photography that shows candid portraits
  • Artwork that shows flaws in human nature
  • Artwork that portrays nature as powerful and cruel

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