Social Realism
Socially Conscious Painting Movement in America During Depression.

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Social Realism (c.1930-45)


What is Social Realism?
History and Characteristics
Ben Shahn
Social Realism versus Socialist Realism

Examples of Social Realism

Years of Dust (1937)
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
Poster by Ben Shahn, for the
the Resettlement Administration.

Migrant Mother (1936)
Nipomo, California.
Florence Owens Thompson, aged 32,
and two of her seven children.
Photographed by Dorothea Lange.

Farmer and Sons Walking in Dust Storm
Cimarron County Oklahoma, April 1936
Photograph by Arthur Rothstein.

What is Social Realism?

In modern art, the phrase "Social Realism" is traditionally associated with interwar American art, which commented on social, economic and political conditions prevailing during the Depression era. Embodied in the work of Ben Shahn (1898-1969), American Social Realism was one of two modern art movements with a left-wing character - the other being Soviet-inspired Socialist Realism. It evolved out of the earlier Ashcan urban art movement, led by Robert Henri (1865-1929). More importantly, it was reinforced by the Federal Art Project (1935-43), a WPA state-sponsored program of public art, that promoted the role of the artist within society. At its peak, the Federal Art Project employed over five thousand modern artists involved in poster art and printmaking as well as crafts and painting. Decoration of public buildings was an integral part of the program, and it also involved an Index of American Design, a vast written record of decorative art in America. Other realist movements of the interwar years included American Scene Painting and its offshoot Regionalism.


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History and Characteristics

Two defining events of the 1930s, the Great depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe, prompted many American artists to turn away from abstract art and to adopt realistic styles of painting. For Regionalists, this meant the promotion of an idealized, often chauvinistic visision of America's agrarian past. Social Realists, however, felt the need for a more socially conscious art.

The 20th century painters often referred to as "urban realists" - Ben Shahn, Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Moses (1899-1974) and Raphael Soyer (1899-1987), William Gropper (1897-1977), and Isabel Bishop (1902-88) - documented the human cost of the political and economic tragedies of the day. Their themes link them with some of the greatest photographers of the day, including Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Walker Evans (1903-75) and Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71) - noted in particular for her photographic Holocaust art - who achieved the same characteristic blend of reportage and biting social commentary, creating some of the most enduring images of interwar America. Other important American practitioners of realist painting during the interwar period included George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), Grant Wood (1892-1942) and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009).

Ben Shahn

Shahn was involved in photography as well as painting. Like many other realist artists at the time, he depicted the victims of miscarriages of justice. He became well-known in the early 1930s for his paintings depicting the trial, imprisonment and execution of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were widely seen as victims of America's xenophobia. With other artists and photographers, Shahn worked for the Farm Security Administration, recording conditions of rural poverty to agitate for Frederal assistance.

Social Realism versus Socialist Realism

In visual art, Social realism is quite different from Socialist Realism. The latter was (and still is) a form of political propaganda comonly seen in Communist and other totalitarian regimes, which glorifies workers and peasants toiling in pursuit of "socialist" work goals. In contrast, Social Realism highlights the injustices of the social, economic and political system and their effect on less well-off members of society.

Many Social Realist painters held Marxist principles, but became disillusioned with Communism after the Moscow show trials (1936-8) and the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression pact in 1939. While depicting similar subject matter, the harsh gaze and gritty realism of the Social Realists separate their work from the heroic peasants of Soviet Socialist Realism. Comparisons could be drawn with the work of their realist contemporaries in Germany, such as George Grosz (1893–1959) and Otto Dix (1891-1969) - see also their movement, Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).


Inspiration for the Social Realists came from the Ashcan School (many of them had studied with Ashcan artist John Sloan at the Art Students League in New York) and from the Mexican murals pioneered by Gerardo Murillo (1875-1964). His successors, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), who all executed a range of mural painting in the USA, provided an example of a popular figurative art with social content. By the early 1940s, new forms of art, in particular Abstract Expressionism, were attracting the attention of the critics and the public.


Works exemplifying the American Social Realism movement can be found in several of the best art museums in the United States, including the following:

- Art Institute of Chicago
- Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
- Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa
- Knoxville Museum of Art, Tennessee
- National Museum of American Art, Washington DC
- Oakland Museum of California
- Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
- Springfield Museum of Art, Ohio
- Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana
- Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


• For the evolution of Realism in painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about painting and sculpture in 20th century America, see: Homepage.

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