These are the 12 most famous Realist paintings from art history.
The Floor Scrapers (Les Raboteurs de parquet) by Gustave Caillebotte (1894)
This famous painting is a work of Caillebotte, who was a French impressionist. He was best known for his domestic and familial scenes, portraits, and interiors, but also as one of the first artists who developed an interest in photography. The viewer of this painting is standing above three workers who are on their hands and knees, scraping a wooden floor in a luxurious Parisian apartment (it is now believed to be the artist’s own studio at rue de Miromesnil). The workers are depicted with nude torsos and tilted heads, suggesting a conversation. Interestingly enough there is a motif of curls, from the wood shavings on the floor to the pattern of ironwork in the window to the backs and arms of the men.
The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer (1885)
Homer painted several paintings on marine subjects in the late 19th century. Homer was a self-taught landscape painter and illustrator from America who is still one of the preeminent figures in American art. The original sketch for this painting was found in the artist’s studio after his passing showing his handyman (H. Lee) posing for it in a dory supported on a pile of sand. This painting itself is psychologically tense as there is the consistent risk of being lost at sea as a result of fog, and this painting has been used in elementary school education to teach about the interpretation of art and the risky lives of fishermen.
Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet by Gustave Courbet (1854)
Courbet was a French realism painter whose independence set an example that was important for the artists of the following epochs as the Impressionists and Cubists. In this painting, the artist painted himself on the right side, depicting himself as he thought of himself and how he wished to seem. The man to the left is wearing a brown suit and seems to be serving the man standing in the center, wearing a green suit. The meeting between the two different men, an avant-garde artist and a wealthy man with a servant, represents the vitality of the countryside in contrast to the mannered style of the city.
The rear of House and Backyard by Adolph Menzel (1846)
Menzel, a German realist painter, also noted for his drawings and etchings, was one of the two most prominent German painters of the 19th century, along D. Friedrich. Although he frequently traveled, he spent most of his life in Berlin, which is where the creation of this painting took place. The artist was, despite numerous friendships, unfortunately by his own admission detached from others, and felt estranged from society due to his peculiar physical appearance (he was four foot six inches tall and had a large head).
The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet (1857)
Millet was one of the founders of the Barbizon school (an art movement concerning realism) in rural France. Today, this French artist is best known for his oil paintings, pastels, conte crayon drawings, and etchings. This famous oil painting depicts three peasant women gleaning a field of stray stalks of wheat after the harvest. It is known today as one of the first paintings featuring the lowest ranks of rural society in a sympathetic way, and was, interestingly enough, received poorly by the French upper class.
Jewess with Oranges by Aleksander Gierymski (1881)
Gierymski, a Polish painter, was a representative of realism and a precursor of impressionism in Poland. Due to his tough life, he was bitterly disappointed, and he looked at the world with the eye of a naturalist. Tragically, he spent the last years of his life in a mental hospital, but he left a valuable heritage for the art world. This painting depicts a Jewish shopkeeper, a woman with poor clothing, a cap, and a scarf. Her face is serious, and her cheeks highlighted with prominent wrinkles show sadness and helplessness. This work was looted by the Nazis during World War II in occupied Poland but was recovered in 2011.
October by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1878)
Bastien-Lepage was a French painter who is today associated with the beginning of naturalism. This painting, also known as Picking Potatoes or The Potato Gatherers, was painted in his native village of Damvillers in northeastern France. The artist spent his childhood there, and his father grew grapes in a vineyard to support the family. Another artist of this epoch, Surikov, described two young women in this painting: “The face is both painted and written as living, everything is written in the air”.
The Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas (1858–1867)
This painting is a work of Edgar Degas, a French impressionist artist who is best known for his pastel drawings and oil paintings, but also bronze sculptures, prints, and drawings. It is a masterwork of the artist’s youth and depicts his aunt Laura, her husband baron Bellelli and their two daughters, Giovanna, and Giulia. Degas’s father’s sister is shown in a dress that symbolizes mourning for her father who had recently died and appears in the framed portrait behind her. What is particularly interesting is that the body position and gestures of Laura is connected with those of her daughters, while her husband appears to be separated from his family. He is depicted sitting at his desk and detached from the rest of the family, both physically and emotionally.
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942)
This painting was done by an American realist painter, Hopper. He created subdued drama out of commonplace subjects and was praised for realistically depicting America of the first half of the 20th century. Nighthawks depicts four people late at night, sitting in a downtown diner, viewed through the diner’s large glass window. Therefore, the viewer is a detached observer of this scene from far away. The three guests are night owls, and the bartender may be a soda-jerker. This painting has been described as Hopper’s best-known work and is one of the most famous paintings ever. It has been suggested that it was inspired by a short story by Ernest Hemingway, either “The Killers” or “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”.
The Elder Sister by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1869)
La soeur aînée is a painting by Bouguereau, academic painter from France. He used mythological themes, and made modern interpretations of classical subjects, with an emphasis on the female body. He finished 833 known paintings, but the whereabouts of many are still unknown. This painting was a gift to the Museum of an anonymous lady in memory of her father. It depicts a girl sitting on a rock holding a sleeping baby on her lap. For this scene, the artist’s children posed as models, and he used great care and attention in drawing the children’s features and the positioning of their bodies.
The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet (1849)
This painting depicts two peasants, a young man, and an old man, breaking rocks. It is a work of a French painter who led the realism movement in 19th-century France, Gustave Courbet. He rejected academic convention and romanticism and committed to painting only what he could see. The intention of this painting is to show the hard labor that poor citizens experienced. As Courbet did not paint their faces, they represent the “every man”. Unfortunately, the painting was destroyed during World War II when a vehicle transporting this, and 154 other paintings were bombed.
The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur (1852)
Rosa Bonheur was a French artist known bas as an anialiere, or as a painter of animals. She was openly lesbian and lived with her partner Nathalie Micas for over 40 years, until her passing. After that, she began another relationship with American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. This painting depicts dealers selling horses at the market held in Paris. With its large scale (244.5 cm x 506.7 cm or 96.3 in x 199.5 in) and realistic style, it is considered to be proto-cinematic.
What famous Realist paintings do you think we should add to this list? Comment below.