The following is adapted from a letter dealing with a series of issues surrounding the creation of a new classical art school (The Grand Central Academy of Art) by Jacob Collins and others. Some of his classical colleagues had argued that realism is antithetical to classicism, and that a return to the classical tradition would require jettisoning the realism of the past century and a half. In particular, they argued that a focus on realism would be a corrupting influence on the projected school, and that the term "classical realism," often associated with him, was a contradiction.
I have been struck over the years by the irony of the term Classical Realism. A hundred and fifty years ago in Paris, the classicists and the realists reviled each other, and not just on aesthetic grounds. They saw themselves as locked in a culture war. I imagine that calling someone a Classical Realist then would have been like coining the term Sunni Shiite nowadays. The two sides saw each other as fundamentally and irreconcilably antipathetic. Realism had a strong spirit of anti-traditionalism. Courbet, for example, was a political radical, and anti-traditionalist forces rallied around him and his innovative art. The politically conservative factions, on the other hand, believed classicism to be a bulwark against the social breakdown they saw all around them. These two powerful artistic ideals came to represent the two poles of a dividing world. But like so many of the things that happened as modernism evolved, this division was, in my opinion, artificial and destructive. Before the French revolution and its ensuing chaos, classicism and realism would not have been viewed as irreconcilable opposites. There is always some realism (by which I mean optical naturalism) in classical art. Think of the faces in Jacques Louis David's portraits [The Death of Marat, Portrait of a Young Boy], for instance. So, too, the art of a realist such as Velázquez [The Forge of Vulcan, Juan de Pareja, Don Sebastian de Morra] is heavily informed by classicism.
It may be useful to distinguish between two different meanings of "realism": one might be called the naturalist impulse; the other, political realism. (I am aware that these terms are less than ideal, since both of them have specific art historical associations.) I would characterize the naturalist impulse as the desire to represent the observed world with visual accuracy and clarity. It moves the artist to make his picture or sculpture look just like the observed world--that is, to render the lighting, the colors, the forms, the details, the surfaces, and all of the other visual aspects just as they would appear to him. Perhaps this corresponds to Aristotle's term "mimesis," which I think he argued was the proper goal of art. Whether one agrees with Aristotle or not, this impulse has been a very strong and ever-present force in classical art since antiquity.
The notion of political realism is, I think, much more recent, coming mainly out of the mid nineteenth century--in particular, through Courbet [e.g., The Stone Breakers] and his allies and followers. These "realists" rejected the classical idealism of their artistic heritage. Viewing classical influences as dishonest, they argued that the artist must not idealize, that he should instead reject conventions of beauty in the pursuit of reality at all costs. Their realist movement was in large measure a political revolt against what they regarded as the oppression of the academic classicists and the social order they represented. This attitude was eventually folded into the modernist movement and became a principal argument against the traditional classical values of the academy.
I would argue that it is important not to conflate the naturalist impulse with the ideas of political realism. Although I really admire some of Courbet's paintings and plenty of other work by the nineteenth-century realists, I am not now and never have been interested in their arguments against classicism in general or the academy in particular. I am not a realist in this sense of the word. I do not paint "slices of life." I do not reject the pursuit of ideal beauty. I have always loved academic and classical art. And I do not paint obviously contemporary subjects as if they contained more real meaning than timeless ones.
While the naturalism within Western art has indeed been a major influence in modern realism, it is, as I have said, an ancient and powerful force--one of the pillars of the classical tradition. The tension between conceptual idealism and observational naturalism has always driven classical art forward. As it has so many other intellectual realms, the union of the rational and the empirical has been fundamental. In science, history, philosophy, and art many great minds have achieved great things by combining a theoretical rationalism with scrupulous observation. In this, as with so much of our intellectual legacy, I credit the ancients. As the Athenians evolved toward the classical period, they were increasingly moved by the desire to describe the world around them. Herodotus, and even more so Thucydides, invented the writing of history by objectively recording the events and people of their times. Aristotle invented modern science by basing his theories on close observation (and recording) of the physical world. Greek drama distinguished itself from its predecessors by the increasing naturalism of its characters. Even Plato, who hated naturalism in art (he decried the realistic characters in Euripides and the realism of the sculpture of Phidias [Roman copy]), was himself a realistic representer of the world. The characters and interactions in his dialogues are riveting because they are so realistically drawn. They resemble people we might know and arguments we might have been in.
More to the point, I would argue that Greek sculpture was transformed by this naturalist impulse, and that the transformation was both historically unique and essential to classicism. The Kouroi [more] [more ] figures evolved into the sculptures of Praxiteles [more] as each generation of sculptors carefully studied the nature of the human body and tried to represent their new insights realistically. Gradually, the figures became more anatomically detailed--in a word, more realistic. But they still retained strong symbolic and formal qualities inherited from the older style. The balance between ideal form and humanistic nuance lends Greek sculpture of the Golden Age power and grace. Over the next few hundred years, naturalism increased. Phidias was more naturalistic than Praxiteles, for example. And by the third century B. C., Greek sculpture was very naturalistic, even judged by nineteenth-century standards. By then, the work had perhaps lost some of its mystery and grandeur. One could say that the earlier archaic stylization was a strength, and that its loss lessened the work. But even if naturalism ultimately became too dominant, it had clearly been integral to classicism from the beginning.
Pliny the Elder's story of the rivalry between two painters of Greece's Golden Age, one of whom was the renowned Zeuxis, is relevant here. According to Pliny, when Zeuxis unveiled his painting of grapes, birds flew down to eat them. Zeuxis then asked his rival to pull aside the curtain from his painting, only to discover that the curtain itself was painted. He had been fooled by his rival's illusionistic virtuosity. This tale suggests that illusionistic realism was important in the ancient world.
The harmony between the real and the ideal that the ancients achieved in the first flowering of classicism is now fractured. Much was sacrificed when the art world sided so strongly with the "political realists" of the nineteenth century. The legacy of that movement is all around us in today's art world: the lack of ideal beauty, the interest in superficial appearances at the expense of meaningful form, the pursuit of the banal. Artists fail when they merely render appearances. Much of the representational art of our times never gets past that point. A related affliction is the widespread practice of painting from photographs. Being dedicated to changing the art world by resurrecting the classical tradition does not mean that we should eradicate the naturalist impulse and eschew nature, however. We need to look carefully and deeply at nature the way the Greeks did, the way the Florentines did, the way the Dutch did, and the way the French academics taught in the studios of nineteenth-century Paris.
See also the letter by Jacob Collins in response to Louis Torres's review of his recent work.