Ism number five – Social Realism

Definition – Social Realism

Social Realism was also known as Socio-Realism. It was an artistic movement, which expressed in realistic terms social issues, racial injustice, and economic hardship. It aimed for the realistic depiction in art of contemporary life, as a means of social or political comment. The Social Realist painter painted life’s struggles, more often than not in mural form. The working class was the hero. It was a movement or style of painting in which the scenes typically conveyed a message of social or political protest with a satirical edge. It developed out of the Ashcan School in the US in the early 20th century.

Social Realism was an important art movement during the Great Depression, particularly in the United States. It was aimed at social change, and the mural seemed to stand for this as a very public art form. For many artists, mural painting was also a reaction against the decadence of art galleries and private homes, which seemed offensive in an era of extreme poverty.

Four Key Artists

Ben Shahn – ‘…there came a time when I stopped painting, stopped in order to evaluate all these doubts. If I couldn’t see purple where there was no purple – I wouldn’t use it. If I didn’t like cows, I wouldn’t paint them. What then was I to paint? Slowly I found that I must paint those things that were meaningful to me – that I could honestly paint in the shapes and colors I felt belonged to them. What shall I paint? Stories.’ Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist. His art lent towards a realist style which he used to contribute to social dialogue.

Unemployed – looking a bit grumpy

Jack Levine – Levine grew up in the South End of Boston, where he observed a street life composed of European immigrants, poverty and societal ills. He was an artist whose artwork caricatured and satirised the inequalities of America in the 20th century and mocked the people in power. Levine railed against ‘abstract painters’, calling them space cadets. This painting below was supposed to be  a scathing critique of political and police corruption.

The Feast of Pure Reason

Jacob Lawrence – Born in New Jersey but raised in Harlem, New York, Lawrence was an American painter who gave vividness to black life. He painted in gouache and tempera, using strokes with blacks and browns for outlines. He filled canvasses with vivid colour. He described his style as ‘dynamic Cubism’.


Reginald Marsh –  Marsh was another American painter. He was born in Paris. He is most famous for his depictions of New York life in the 1920s and 1930s. He painted crowded scenes of Coney Island, entertainments such as vaudeville and burlesque, women, and jobless men on the Bowery.

The Bread Line

One Key Work

I have chosen ‘American Gothic’ by Grant Wood. This painting’s style can be traced to the precise realism of 15th-century northern Europe. However, it is firmly sitting in the Social Realism camp. The artist’s native Iowa provided the subject matter. The painting shows a farmer and his spinster daughter posing before their house designed in the American gothic style, which inspired the painting’s title. Wood was accused of starirising the intolerance and rigidity of the insular rural mid-western life; he denied the accusation. Rather the image epitomizes the Puritan ethic and virtues that he believed dignified the mid-western character.

American Gothic


Wikipedia on Social Realism, [accessed 19 November 2012]

The University of Virginia, [last accessed 19 November 2012]

Wikipedia on Jack Levine, [last accessed 19 November 2012]

Bio True Story on Jacob Lawrence, [last accessed 19 November 2012]

Wikipedia on Reginald Marsh, [last accessed on 19 November 2012]

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply