Psychological Realism in Art

Written by kevin corbett
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Psychological Realism in Art
Impressionist paintings are an example of psychological realism in art. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Psychological realism in art refers to a school of realism that emphasises interior, psychological reality over external reality. Artists in this school, most commonly found in literature, attempt to portray the inner workings of the mind as accurately as possible. As such, the school's approach is often contrary to traditional realism in the scenes and images it presents; this is because, to a psychological realist, a surreal or fantastic scene or image can be more realistic than a mundane one if it accurately reflects deeper psychological realities.

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English author Samuel Richardson wrote one of the first artistic works of what is considered psychological realism: the 1740 novel "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded." The story concerns a 15-year-old servant girl, Pamela Adams, who is locked up by her new master when she refuses to become his mistress. The text of the novel is made of a series of letters, which Richardson believed would help him more accurately convey Pamela's state of mind as she attempted to escape and also gradually fell in love with her captor. While it was a best seller in its time, many looked on it as a trashy romance novel --- yet in the 21st century, it is evident that Richardson was setting the tone of artistic trends to come.

19th Century

In the 19th century, psychological realism became more practised as a narrative approach by novelists. Gustave Flaubert's most celebrated work "Madame Bovary," published in 1857, contains many examples of the approach he used to show how Emma's Bovary's sentimentality and obsession with romantic ideals of love led to her downfall. American and English novelist Henry James used the approach to great effect in "The Turn of the Screw," which was published in 1898. In it, a young nanny believes there may be ghosts plaguing her charges, and the meaning of the ending depends on the reader's interpretation of her psychological state.


There were artists in other fields than literature who created works of psychological realism. The Impressionist school of painting that grew up in 19th century Paris was indeed based around the ideals of psychological realism. To painters like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the "impression" of a scene on the mind was just as important as its external reality. For example, Monet's 1872 painting "Impression, Sunrise," while not photorealistic, was painted in a way that expressed the sense of freedom and newness that Monet felt when he saw the scene in question.

James Joyce

The Irish writer James Joyce is perhaps the most famous exponent of psychological realism. His most famous work "Ulysses," published in 1922, details a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom in 20th-century Dublin. While he had made use of the technique in earlier works, such as "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in 1916, "Ulysses" was the work in which Joyce perfected the so-called "stream of consciousness" technique of narration, which presents every thought and sensation of characters as they happen. While hugely experimental for its time, "Ulysses" is now considered one of the greatest novels in the English language as well as one of the most deeply probing works of psychological realism ever created.

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