The Contemporary Realist Movement

December 10, 2011 Updated: January 24, 2012
Max Ginsburg, Foreclosure
Max Ginsburg, Foreclosure: "It is unconscionable that people are being evicted from their homes, allowing greed and profits to come before people. I chose to express these realities, not with a metaphor, but head on." (Image courtesy of the artist)


The term “contemporary art” has long been associated with the modernist and postmodernist movements because at the time those trends emerged, the words “contemporary art” or “modern art” also meant the art of the day. However, these movements started decades ago, and today the terms have become misleading.

A new movement of living artists is taking back the word “contemporary” and associating it with the traditional techniques of the old masters applied to the human experience as well as important subjects of the times.

The general public is growing tired of art that needs long explanations and justifications. More and more people want to recognize what they are looking at and respond to it on a humanist level rather than a purely conceptual one.

The contemporary realist movement first started as a reaction to the modernists and postmodernists, who still dominate the art market today.

When one can take a found object, put it in a museum and call it art, the general feeling among this growing movement is that the definition of art has become so broad that the word “art,” as defined by the current art establishment, ceases to have meaning.

The modernist movement originated in the early 1900s, and one critic of that time noted, “The avowed purpose of art has been tampered with by introducing the elements of a missing-word composition. … Many friends of art expect that it will meet its fate, but a few champions see a revolution in progress.” [1]

The modernist underdogs quickly took hold of the art world, completely dominating it by the end of the 1940s. After the tragedy of two world wars and the Great Depression, humanity was left with a heart of cynicism and a mind filled with existentialist thoughts, two qualities that modern and postmodern art took to its core.

In reaction to this negative view on humanity and its accomplishments, the contemporary realists felt mankind was best served by depicting through art, the qualities in life that unite us as people, rather than the debasement of civilization.

Nothing says more about a culture than the art it idolizes. Art represents what a culture values, what its people think about, and essentially what they deem worth remembering. Art is the representation of a people, encapsulating their essence on every level.

These artists believe there is more to great art than Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which is really nothing more than a toilet, or Jackson Pollack’s oeuvre, which is nothing more than splattered paint.

Contemporary realists looked back at the art that pre-dated those global catastrophes, to the old masters, and especially the classical artists of the 19th century, whose works reached their zenith just before the onset of modernism. They are now the progenitors of a renaissance with new themes encapsulating freedom of speech through visual storytelling.

Duffy Sheridan, Promise of Renewal
Duffy Sheridan, Promise of Renewal. (Image courtesy of the artist)

The Internet has become the most important tool for the realist movement. It allowed the movement to gain serious traction about 10 years ago by linking like-minded people together, enabling them to find each other and promote their thoughts to others.

Through groups such as good GoodArt, the Art Renewal Center (A.R.C.) was founded as a center for Realism. It became the largest online museum and the only one at that time dedicated to traditional art.

ARC searched out the remaining few atelier schools that still used the training methods of the old masters. Finding only 14 in existence at that time, with less than 200 students, ARC advertised them to the public.

Since that time, the atelier schools have grown dramatically, with more and more created every year. On the Art Renewal website, 72 atelier schools and workshops are now listed, with many times the number of students, and more are out there that are not listed.

Other alliances have also formed, such as the American Society of Classical Realism, International Guild of Realism, American Society of Portrait Artists, Oil Painters of America, Chinese International Figure Painting, and the California Arts Club, among many others.

Magazines now exist that are dedicated to Realism, such as Fine Art Connoisseur, Plein Air, Artist Advocate, American Arts Quarterly, Art of the West, and others.

Head instructor of the Ani Art Academy Waichulis, Anthony Waichulis, says: “Over the past few years, I have found that applications and program inquiries have increased tenfold. It seems that this ever-growing resurgence in Realism is encouraging new aspiring artists to enthusiastically pursue fundamental skill building on a scale I have not seen before.

“This is truly a wonderful thing, as I believe that effective education is one of the most powerful tools we have to shape the future,” he said.[2]

These groups are all united, figuratively if not literally, in their goal to bring realist painting, drawing, and sculpture back to the forefront of contemporary art

The atelier schools are the foundation of the movement. They are the source of the proper training that is denied in most university and college art curriculums.

For example, when I was getting my bachelor’s degree at Drew University (in New Jersey), which has a reputable arts program, I signed up for a sculpture course. When I got to the class, I learned that it did not involve clay, but it did involve found objects. When I asked what level of sculpture started work with clay, I was told that I would need to take a ceramics course if I wanted to make pots.

As most realist artists know, clay is a foundational tool in learning how to sculpt the human figure, something the college program did not teach. Although this is one example, it is not uncommon, but the norm.

At the Art Renewal Center, letters are received almost daily from artists and art lovers who have reported similar experiences.

Julian Halsby wrote: “I am writing from Britain to say how much I support your movement for the restoration of traditional values in art. There are many of us here in the U.K. who believe that modern art is in many ways a confidence trick and that traditional values must be restored in art schools.

“We have a magazine called The Jackdaw, in which David Lee attacks the Art Establishment. … I write for The Artist magazine and often express views similar to yours.” [3]

James Oliver wrote: “I am an artist who has been disenchanted with the art world to such a degree that I have pursued a science education instead. I think this site is the first real indication that the madness is beginning to clear as humankind rediscovers the beautiful.” [4]

“As an artist and teacher, I believe that the future will only be possible if we infuse the arts back where they always belonged, at the heart of human education,” Jean Corbeil wrote.”[5]

These are only a small taste of the more than 400 letters posted on the ARC website—letters that have come in from all over the world and express similar views and experiences.

Continued: Unlike “normal” art schools, atelier schools focus entirely on representational art …