The Gilded Age: Realism in Literature and Art

Snow in New York,  by Robert Henri  in 1902, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


In previous posts, we have defined the Gilded Age as a period in American history marked by rapid industrialization and growth. The term “Gilded” means covered in gold, but looks are deceiving as this era was filled with a numerous amount of social and political problems. To expose these problems, people wanted to depict the cultural changes that were occurring by documenting the real American life. Thus, realism was born in America in the middle of the 19th century and declined in the early 20th.

Romanticism versus Realism

American Progress, by John Gast around 1872 alluding to the idea of Manifest Destiny, oil on canvas, Museum of the American West, Griffith Park, Los Angeles, CA

Realism emerged from rapid changes that could not be ignored in society and as it emerged, the romanticism movement began to decline. Romanticism began around the 1770’s and was typically characterized as a pessimistic rebellion against society, mysterious and dramatic, that looked to the past as a way to inspire. Yet, realism embraced and analyzed society and the everyday life in order to expose issues from the poor to middle-class.


Mark Twain, author of such works like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

As mentioned earlier, accurately representing the problems and struggles Americans were facing was essential. For realist authors, character building was more important than the rest of the story. The readers (typically those of the upper-class who could not relate) needed to feel for this character before they could feel for their situation. Authors created believable plots, limited their use of symbolism, and described every minuscule detail. Above all, they hoped to inspire change.

Among popular realist writers were Henry James, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Jack London, John Steinbeck, and so many more. In fact, it was Twain who used the word “gilded” to describe this age and the term remained.


Portraits of Artists from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Portraits of Artists from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

The Ashcan School was a group of artists that depicted common day scenes of life in New York for poor immigrants. Some of these artists included realists like Robert Henri, George B. Luks, John Sloan, Edward Hopper, and many more.

Prisoners from the front, Winslow Homer, 1866, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another famous American artist was Winslow Homer who began his career by illustrating the American Civil War with accurate representations of soldiers and prisoners. These were featured in Harper’s Weekly magazine. His postwar art featured American families and freed slaves that he painted. Even later on, he became known for landscape painting that typically, though not always, portrayed hard work and labor. He painted a number of women in this scenes and also became interested in the use of watercolor and marine life. Though many have criticized his work as not being realistic representations of American civilization, Homer is still a noteworthy prodigy in the art world.

The Gilded Age may have exhibited rapid economic, social and political change, but this period also inspired a movement of art and literature in American history.





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