Classical Realism: A Living Artistic Tradition
By Stephen Gjertson
The Origin of the Phrase
The expression “Classical Realism,” when applied to a specific group of artists, originated with Minneapolis artist Richard Lack (1928-2009). Lack studied with Boston artist R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) during the early 1950s. In 1967 he established Atelier Lack, a studio-school of fine art patterned after the ateliers of 19th-century Paris and the teaching of the Boston impressionists. By 1980 he had trained a significant group of young painters. In 1982, they organized a traveling exhibition of their work and that of other artists within the artistic tradition represented by Gammell, Lack, and their students. Lack was asked by Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum, Springville, Utah, (the exhibition’s originating venue), to coin a term that would differentiate the realism of the heirs of the Boston tradition from that of other representational artists. Although he was reluctant to label this work, Lack chose the expression “Classical Realism.” It was first used to characterize the work of a specific group of painters in the title of that exhibition: Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century.
In the exhibition’s catalog Lack stated one reason why such a term was needed: “Any 20th-century painting that suggests a recognizable object, however crudely or childishly rendered, qualifies as ‘realistic.’ Obviously, the simple word realism, when applied to painting, has become so broad in its sweep and general in its application that it is no longer meaningful.” He was well aware of the difficulties involved in attempting to come up with a term that was recognizable, yet descriptive. He knew that within the context of art history, the phrase “Classical Realism” was an oxymoron.
Classicism and Realism
Throughout history the tenets of Classicism (and its derivations Neo-Classicism and Idealism) and Realism have been opposed to one another. Classicists believed that the art of ancient Greece and Rome set the standard by which art should be judged. They created work based on antique models with subject matter that was taken from history, myth and legend. Their work was characterized by an idealization of nature for the sake of beauty and proportion and a clear and logical expression of their subjects through refined drawing, form and technical methods. Realists, on the other hand, disdained beauty of both subject and methods. They seldom represented themes from history or myth and preferred the depiction of common themes, with little or no idealization. Even lofty themes were rarely idealized for the sake of beauty. Compare, for example, the work of Raphael to that of Caravaggio or, closer to our time, the work of Bouguereau to that of Courbet.
The Western European Artistic Tradition
With these historical distinctions in mind, what did Richard Lack mean by combining them into the phrase Classical Realism? Fundamental to Lack’s definition of Classical Realism is an understanding of artistic tradition. Lack’s definition embraces the traditions of European art, including Classicism and Realism, which were passed down from master to pupil since the Renaissance. In the 19th century these picture-making traditions and methods were fundamental to the teaching of the École des Beaux-Arts and the individual ateliers of Paris, as well as the academies and studios of Germany, England, and Italy.
The specific artistic tradition of which Lack and his pupils are a part is rooted in what is known as the Boston School, one of the longest continuing schools of painting in the history of American art. “The Boston painters,” states Lack, “became famous throughout the United States as practitioners of a style based on authoritative draftsmanship, richly pigmented surfaces and, above all, a steadfast devotion to color truth or, as they phrased it, the ‘note.’ ” These artists were dedicated to the look of the visible world, the evanescent effects of light and the immediacy of gesture found in their everyday surroundings, and succeeded in creating an art whose truth to nature and beauty of color was rarely surpassed by their European contemporaries. Their work combined the academic and the impressionist traditions into a truly American art.
Among the major contributors to this effort were Dennis Miller Bunker, Edmund C. Tarbell, Joseph R. DeCamp and William McGregor Paxton. William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941) had been trained in Paris by Jean-Léon Gérôme in the late 1880s and early 1890s. He provided the connecting link to the post World War II development of this tradition in America through his pupil, R. H. Ives Gammell. Gammell was a man of independent means, a first-rate intellectual, and an exceptionally gifted artist. He endeavored to preserve and pass on some of the rapidly diminishing knowledge of traditional picture making by establishing an atelier in Boston. This studio-school, the only one of its kind during the heyday of Modernism, continued to function until his death in 1981.
Gammell recognized the necessity of carrying forward both the academic and impressionist traditions, not wanting to continue the disastrous split between the two that shattered the art of painting at the beginning of this century. Classical Realism, as Lack envisioned it, was firmly rooted in the basic artistic principles embodied within the European French academic and American impressionist traditions bequeathed to him by R. H. Ives Gammell. It was this dual tradition of academic drawing and impressionist color that differentiated Classical Realism from other American artistic traditions.
The principles inherent in this dual academic/impressionist tradition are the criteria by which works are created and judged by those whose art comes legitimately under the banner of Classical Realism. Let us briefly examine some of these basic principles.
Truth to Nature
“In looking at the great tradition of Western painting,” states Lack, “we discover that the representational element was considered by both painters and art lovers to be paramount in judging the merit of a picture. Critical evaluation centered around such matters as good or bad drawing, color plausibility, truthfulness of light and shadow, and highly developed skills of execution. In the comments made by painters of the past, we read again and again of their devotion to depicting nature truthfully. The intensity of this devotion is unarguable. The evidence of this dedication is found in their work. The use of representation becomes a focal point for the viewer’s interest and gives the painter access to nature’s rich storehouse of forms and colors, more varied and multitudinous than any human imagination can provide.”
Depicting nature truthfully, however, is dependent upon how an individual perceives, or is taught to perceive, the visible world. There are three basic approaches to such perception: that of the classicist, the realist and the impressionist. The general characteristics of the two former approaches have been stated and may be put under the heading Academic. When seeing and rendering nature, the academic artist emphasizes the drawing and tends to use light and shadow to explain the form. The true visual “note,” or color, of an object is not necessarily important or stressed. The impressionist sees nature broadly as an integrated and harmonious whole and emphasizes the effect of light on the objects represented. Tone and color are used to suggest the effect of light rather than the form, though the best impressionists never neglect the form. Painting the correct “note,” or color, observed in nature is of great importance. Impressionists primarily render only what they see before their eyes, so their subject matter is necessarily limited to that which can be seen or set up in nature. Imaginary or historical worlds are of little interest to the true impressionist. Whatever the approach, the subtle representation of nature is the foundation upon which the art of classicism, realism, and impressionism is built.
Thorough Artistic Training
As an artist and teacher, Lack emphasized the fact that “a high level of competence in depicting nature must be attained before a painting can qualify as professional and that true excellence of representation is within the grasp of very few painters. These painters must have a natural talent for draftsmanship (usually in evidence by the time budding painters are in their early teens), an uncommon visual memory, a fine eye for subtle shifts of light and dark and a sensitivity to color. All of these affinities are necessary for one to become a first-rate painter and are latent in what we call talent. However, as in other fields, this basic talent must be subjected to proper training if it is to reach its potential. Many years of hard work under the guidance of a master are required to develop and fulfill the talent’s promise. Thereafter, dedicated painters must continually work to sharpen their skills of representation and not allow weakness of will, laziness, or compromise of their artistic integrity to seep into their work if they wish to maintain those skills. Unquestionably, the coordination of hand and eye necessary to create distinguished representation is a rare commodity.” Whether the approach is academic, impressionist or a synthesis of the two, such distinguished representation is noticeably correct in proportion and convincing in shape, form, value, gesture and expression. Plausibility or truth of color varies with the perception of the individual artist and the type of work being done, but color should, in all cases, be fitting to the subject and harmonious to the eye.
“In our age,” notes Lack, “we must clarify the use of photography in the process of painting representational pictures. We know that many 19th-century masters including Degas, Eakins, Gérôme, and Bouguereau were fascinated by the possibilities of the newly developed science of photography. They made limited use of it in their own work without, however, corrupting the essential dignity and artistry of their style. In contrast, the use of black and white photographs or colored slides in the work of so many contemporary realists results either in a slick style (which in some quarters has been taken up as an artistic virtue) or a flashy style arrived at through the use of false dexterity to disguise the fact that the artist relied on photography for both inspiration and rendering. Even the best photographs can distort shapes, perspective, color and values, imparting a false note to painting done entirely from photos. For the most part, however, this is discernible to only the trained eye.”
“A painting within this tradition must be beautiful in line and color to qualify as art,” states Lack. “I emphasize the word beauty, for mere use of garish color and strong line is not sufficient to create good design. The lines and colors used by the painter must elicit in the eye of a cultivated viewer a harmonious and agreeable sensation. This is true regardless of the subject. The painter, as the old phrase would have it, must regale the eye.” The Classical Realist views the arts as The Beautiful Arts: Les Beaux-Arts, Le Belle Arti. Although the aspects of visual beauty are diverse, it is achieved primarily through design and drawing. Its essence is in the harmonious patterning of a work’s lines, tones and colors. These patterns maintain a dominant focus and provide an orderly movement for the viewer’s eyes to follow. The result is the viewer’s positive emotional response. Beauty is fitting to specific works of art in varying degrees, according to the particular artistic intention of the individual artist and the nature of the particular work. Beauty may be sought in a work’s conception, design, drawing, color, and execution.
Technical skill is the broadest criterion that separates the work of the professional artist from the amateur. It is acquired by diligent training and practice. Skill is necessary throughout the process by which artists develop and execute their work. “Prior to the last third of the 19th century,” explains Lack, “it was commonly assumed that painters would finish their pictures to the best of their ability. This process of finish conveyed to the viewer a completeness of conception and execution, embodying all that the painter wished to say in an understandable way. Finishing forced painters to solve all of their picture-making problems ─ drawing, massing of darks and lights, and color ─ in as intensely creative a manner as possible. As every trained painter knows, the contemporary passion for sketch-like paint handling and bright color often hides a host of incompetencies such as bad drawing and unresolved design. To maintain unity and, at the same time, create a sense of life is more difficult in a highly finished picture than in a sketch. As Degas said: It is not difficult to get life into a six-hour study. The difficulty is to retain it there in 60.”
Classical Realism, therefore, is an artistic point-of-view characterized by a love and respect for the great traditions of Western art. It is grounded in the subtle representation of nature, a representation that is only possible by a person with a trained and sensitive eye. Some Classical Realists may make judicious use of photographs, but their work is lifelike, not photographic. Classical Realists often idealize or stylize their work for the sake of beauty and harmony. Care is given to the elements of composition and design. Every effort is made to master the technical skills necessary to create work that compares favorably to that of the masters of the past, either academic or impressionist. Their work is classical because it exhibits a preference for order, beauty, harmony and completeness; it is realist because its basic vocabulary comes from the representation of the form and color of nature. Contemporary works of art that exhibit these general characteristics come under the broad heading of Classical Realism. The excellence of individual works depends upon the degree to which these characteristics have been mastered and utilized.
Classical Realism is a more inclusive term than Classicism, Realism, and Impressionism. It encompasses these traditions and may be used to describe works that are quite diverse. Works categorized as Classical Realist may exhibit characteristics of Classicism and Realism, both part of the European Academic tradition, and ─ though not implied by the name ─ impressionism, as exemplified by the artists of the Boston School. Paintings by classical realists will exhibit a high degree of truth to the color of nature. The work of Classical Realists is not limited to so-called classical or realist themes and includes most of the genres common to Western art: still life, portrait, landscape and seascape, indoor and outdoor figure painting, and imaginative painting. Classical Realism is a living tradition. It is not a pastiche of styles and methods pieced together from the past. Classical realists can usually trace their artistic lineage from pupil to teacher back to 19th century France, Germany, England, or Italy. Although its roots are in the past, its practitioners are living in the present and creating work that has meaning for them today. It is connected, not reactionary. The principles upon which their art is based transcend the transience of popular trends and link their work as a whole to the timeless qualities inherent in the best work of the past.
The American Society of Classical Realism (1989-2005)
In 1989 Richard Lack, Michael Coyle, Gary Christensen, and Annette LeSueur founded The American Society of Classical Realism to promote accomplished artists working within the traditions of Western European academic and American impressionist art. They established the Society as a volunteer, artist-run organization; it has published the Classical Realism Quarterly, the Classical Realism Journal and the Classical Realism Newsletter. The professional heart of the ASCR was its Guild of Artists. Guild members were practitioners of the varied genres within these traditions. Some specialized in one or two; others did work within several, or even all, of them. It was the desire of the ASCR to acknowledge and encourage artists whose work exhibited a mastery of the basic elements considered essential to these artistic traditions: fine drawing, balanced and harmonious design, beauty, color truth, and skillful craftsmanship. Through its Atelier Scholarship Fund it also supported artists who seriously taught the principles within those traditions and art historians who conscientiously researched and wrote about artists who have worked, or are working, within them. The ASCR functioned successfully until the end of December 2005.
When Richard Lack chose the term “Classical Realism,” he was endeavoring to differentiate his specific representational tradition from the various traditions of other representational artists. His tradition was an amalgamation of the 19th century academic Beaux-Arts tradition with that of the American impressionist tradition of the Boston artists. It combined the drawing and form of the French Beaux-Arts tradition with the observed color and atmosphere of the Boston artists. The term has subsequently been broadened by others to describe the work of artists who are influenced by the 19th century academic artists, but who work from color systems and formulas rather than from observed nature. As such, the term has lost the meaning intended by its creator. If it is to retain its original significance, it must refer to work that combines the academic drawing and form of the 19th century academic tradition with the color and atmosphere of the Boston impressionists.
Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century, exhibition catalog, Springville Museum of Art, 1982.
The American Society of Classical Realism Guild of Artists, exhibition catalog, The Guild of Boston Artists, 1996.