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
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

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

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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Additional Activities

Social Realism: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

Further Exploration

1. Social realism as an artistic movement in America, particularly in the area of photography, was a dynamic part of journalism during the Great Depression. In the lesson, you read about a famous photograph by Dorothea Lange of a migrant woman. Another famous photograph of an individual person representing a social issue is Steve McCurry's 1984 photograph of an Afghan girl that became a 1985 cover of National Geographic. Look up this photo online, and others taken by National Geographic photojournalists. Think about (or discuss with a group) how a single image can represent a much larger issue like war or poverty.

2. Various types of art can participate in the concept of treating social issues through images. Surrealist painter and sculptor Salvador Dali often commented on social issues through his art, which drew on imaginary scenes and images from the human subconsciousness. Look at some of his paintings about war like Face of War and Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man. Both of these pieces were done in response to the artist's perceptions about World War II. Read a bit about Dali and his feelings about what was happening in Europe, especially his native Spain, during the mid twentieth century.

3. Theater and film can also address social issues. Read or watch a video production of Susan Glaspell's one-act play Trifles. This play examines the role of women in Western culture in the early twentieth century. What is the message delivered through this play? How do you think this play might have been received in 1916 when it was first performed? Does it still speak to contemporary cultural issues?

Creative Projects

1. Choose a current social issue that is important to you and create a painting or drawing to address how you feel about this issue.

2. Take a series of photographs to communicate your opinion about a current problem in society. Use a combination of human subjects and landscapes or cityscapes. Put your photographs in an order that works best to deliver your message and paste them on a poster board.

Help with Leading Discussion:

Photographs in the social realism category attempt to convey a message, or at least awareness, about an issue or problem through a single image. What do you see in photos like the migrant woman or the afghan girl? A possible answer or discussion direction might involve the idea of symbolism and what is symbolized. Images tend to make a large impersonal issue much more personal and relatable. The discussion is item #1 might lead well into the second creative project.

Dali felt that he had unusual intuition about the future and tried to communicate his ideas through art. Knowing that the two paintings in #2 coincide with the time of World War II, students might talk about how these paintings serve as a warning. This idea, in turn, might lead into a discussion of how various art forms have long addressed social problems and issues.

The play Trifles speaks to its cultural time, a time when men "ran the world" and women were expected to concern themselves with only domestic "trifles" or small issues. Yet it is the women in this play who really know what happened and understand the crime. Students might talk about the idea of assumptions causing problems and relate this to their interactions with their personal world.

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