Old Road by DP Brown


What is High Realism?


           Realism and its close relatives, Naturalism and Illusionism, have all been important aspects in the development of painting in North America. During the formative periods of U.S. and Canadian history, many skilled painters were either immigrants or indigenous artists who expanded their skills with extended travel in Europe or study in European academies. The natural wonders of North America, as well as the rugged heritage of the frontier, helped to inspire a detailed, sharp focused and down to earth style. In these times paintings were often narrative in nature, providing an informal record of the frontier culture. Additionally, a thorough review of North American paintings in the pre-Civil War period will yield many examples of inspired art and cultural commentaries. Notable artists included Karl Bodmer, Charles Bird King, Charles Deas, John Mix Stanley, Eastman Johnson, George Caleb Bingham in the U.S., and Paul Kane in Canada. They were later followed by Charles M. Russell, Fredric Remington and many others.

Historical Canadian Realism Gallery

         During the Colonial era Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley were perhaps the first North Americans to establish signficant reputations in Europe as skilled artists. In the middle decades of the 19th century, the landscapes of the Hudson River School held center stage and drew attention to the natural wonders on the American continents. Some of these artists grew to great stature, most notably Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt. In later decades they were followed by Thomas Moran and by Homer Watson in Canada. In the final decades of the 19th Century, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and others refocused the limelight on figurative and narrative subjects. Paul Peel, a Canadian student of Eakins and Gerome, established a reputation, particularly for his work with the academic nude.  

        Canada's first significant school of art was called the Group of Seven. Founded in 1913, these landscape artists developed techniques en plein air. Generally influenced by French Impressionism, The Group choose subject material from the rugged areas around of Algoma District and near Georgian Bay. LeMoine Fitzgerald joined the Group of Seven in 1932, and became a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters, which succeeded the original Group in the 1933. His art was influenced by Charles Sheeler and Precisionism, and represents a kind of prelude to High Realism .

        The concept of High Realism was introduced by art critic Paul Duval in his book High Realism in Canada, published in 1974. Mr. Duval defined its essential qualities as follows: "objectivity of vision, sharpness of definition, precision of technique, accuracy of detail, and excellence of craftsmanship". He went on to say that "though high realists use nature as their take-off point, they bring to it a highly personal vision, style and technique". Duval intended for High Realism art to be considered distinct from Photorealism, which appeared in the U.S. beginning in the late 1960's.

       Beginning in the period following World War II, Abstract Expressionism dominated the press and art criticism in North America. But with the work of Andrew Wyeth and others in the U.S. and of Alex Colville in Canada, representational art retained a foothold, on which High Realism blossomed in the 1960s. Although perhaps never a discrete movement, still the artists of Canada share an independent worldview, based on their country's traditions, and a wholesome Canadian outlook. The ascendancy of High Realism coincided with the national celebration of Canadian Centennial in 1967.

      Some of the art considered as High Realism is painted with the Egg Tempera technique, a tedious process that dates back to the Middle Ages. Egg Tempera is fast drying and does not blend at the edges, thus ideal for rendering precise and sharp details. Other artists have  used acrylic polymer emulsion, which is also fast drying. There are abundant commercial products available for acrylics to make glazes, varnish or to modify texture. Oil techniques. particularly those using tempera and glazes, have also been used successfully. It is important to note that High Realism embraces the traditions of art, rather than attempting to avoid or destroy them.

      Artists who have been most closely associated with High Realism include Alex Colville,  Christopher Pratt, and Dan Price Brown . Related works cited by Duval have come from Hugh Mackenzie, Fred Ross, Tom Forrestall, and Jeremy Smith. Duval also cited E.J. Hughes, but Hughes' work generally had a distinctive naive-like style, more closely related to early Magic Realism. Many of Ken Danby's early paintings were done in Egg Tempera, and are consistent with the concept of High Realism. His later works seemed to have drifted away toward a type of nature-based photorealism. Other Canadian artists who have identified their work with High Realism include Richard T. Davis and Brian LaSaga.

      While High Realism has generally been associated with Canadian art, comparable art can be found around the world in the work of a number of artists, including Philip Pearlstein, Robert Vickery and James Aponovich in the U.S., Grahame Sydney in New Zealand, Paul Christiaan Bos in the Netherlands, Boris Koller in Austria, Brian Dunlop in Australia, Manfred Juergens and Heiner Altmeppen in Germany. Although High Realism sometimes borders or even overlaps Magic Realism in style and content, it is even more deeply rooted in traditional techniques and has a classical or cultivated outlook.

Georg Kremer - Email: editor@monograffii.com