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Might As Well Celebrate Loneliness With 3 American Realists – George Segal, Andrew Wyeth, And Edward Hopper


The realist art movement in America during the 20th century was an attempt to bring the real world back into art. Artists set about depicting the contemporary realities of the day, including the activities of ordinary people.
The non-idealized view of the worlds of Hopper, Wyeth, and Segal painted scenes that showed individual’s circumstances often concentrating on feelings of alienation and isolation.


Often, these paintings had an overarching melancholic feel that intensified as time went on. Works were set in empty streets, storefronts, and other internal spaces where figures often seemed alienated from the rest of the world.
Settings were both urban and rural landscapes, and were deliberately painted to render this atmosphere of solitude and alienation.



The stillness in the paintings is created in part from the formality of the artists’ chosen styles. The use of hard light and the casting of shadows is emphasized within large solid masses of architecture.
This constructed world accentuates the themes of alienation and isolation the Realists explored.

Edward Hopper

Self-Portrait of Edward Hopper

Hopper was interested in telling the whole truth about a scene and its people. His works set out to depict American society, both urban and rural. City life in America was captured in many of his works, and he adopted common elements of American culture including, gas stations, theatres, restaurants and street scenes.
Some of Hopper’s more famous paintings come from the 1930s and 40s, but the artist still produced strong works in the 1950s and 60s.

Characteristics of Edward Hopper’s work

  • Views of “typical” rural and urban America at the time.
  • Everyday scenes are central to his narrative but they are general rather than specific cities or towns.
  • Hopper’s style is clear and figurative. Its formal composition and use of linear perspective underlie each painting.
  • Landscape is another common characteristic of his work
  • Strong contrasts – Light and shadow stand out and sharply define elements within the frame. This is essential in creating the feeling of isolation, stillness and loneliness associated with Hopper’s work
  • Feeling of desolation – either with no figures or the appearance of anonymous, non-communicating and self-contained figures
  • “Detached” points of view. The viewer looks in on private scenes but no judgement is offered by the artist as a reference on how to interpret these characters.
  • A dull aura to the paintings created with the use of subdued colours.
  • Illusionistic use of space.


Summer Evening, Edward Hopper


Summer Evening is a good example of Hopper’s use of everyday scenes, presented with his clear and figurative style. While a couple stand upon a veranda, Hopper gives the painting a sense of isolation.
The viewer looks into a private moment where the couple are not communicating with each other, or with the viewer. Are they breaking up? Are they related? Have they received bad news? This detached viewpoint prevents the viewer form understanding what the couple are thinking or talking about.
Light cast shadows within the pictorial space and highlights the darkness beyond the porch. This lighting also transforms the private space into a public one, where the couple’s intimate moment is seen by anyone close by.
Hopper’s subdued palate and dull aura adds to an overall feeling of isolation in this scene.

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper


Nighthawks is one of Hopper’s most famous works and highlights the ideas of isolation and loneliness in an urban night scene. There is no sign of life in the buildings across the road, adding to the sense of loneliness within the frame.
Again the work is subdued in colour palate and the difference between the warm coloured interior and the cooler exterior compounds the sense of loneliness. Viewers look through the glass window that acts as a barrier to the conversation and action within.
There is no door to the outer world of the big city, heightening a sense of isolation within the frame. The quiet conversation that the characters might be engaged in, leaves us outside looking in.
Hopper leaves questions unanswered for the viewer – did the couple arrive together? Did they meet there? What about the man sitting alone? Why is he there so late at night? This ere of mystery has kept many a person guessing, and has contributed to the painting’s fame.

Nighthawks has inspired many artists, including Tom Waits, who provided somewhat of a soundtrack to this kind of lifestyle that Hopper depicts in this work. Hopper is said to have inspired Tom Waits’ “Nighthawks At The Diner” album.

Gas Station, Edward Hopper


Gas Station is another work that has an aura of isolation. This time, the service station is located in a desolate rural landscape. The woods encircle the man and his work. Similar subdued colours are used to heighten the sense of the man’s isolation from the rest of the world.
Lights and shadows also add to the sense of loneliness within the work, and the towering petrol pumps dwarf the only human present. Hopper’s style is clear and figurative. Its formal composition and use of linear perspective underlie the painting’s constructed space.
Light creates shadows across the path while the worker is cast in the shadows, (visually separating him from the rest of the world).

Hotel Room, Edward Hopper


Hotel Room exhibits most of the same characteristics, this time within the frame of a hotel room. A sense of aloneness is constructed around a solitary figure reading a book in a large room.
Again the viewer is put in the position of looking at the subject’s world, without any real answers of who she is and why she is there. She sits on the side of her bed in her underwear and alone.
Her suitcases are unpacked and her shoes discarded on the floor. Hopper ties the realist space with the emotion of the scene itself- the sense of desolation experienced by the woman. Strong contrasts of light and shadow stand out and sharply define elements within the room.

Watch this video on Edward Hopper, brought to us by the School Of Life.

Andrew Wyeth

Self-Portrait, 1938

Wyeth constructs sentimental, yet meticulously executed compositions. Often his pieces have a timeless character, and indeed do not fit any fixed time period. They could be historic or contemporary, portray the unchanging raw countryside.
Compared to Hopper Wyeth’s work celebrates the simpler life of rural America in a sentimental and nostalgic way. For this reason, Wyeth’s works have a Regionalist overtone that show ordinary people in a rural setting, a common trait of Regionalist works.

Wyeth often used figures with mental or physical disabilities as a metaphor for the harshness of the land that he painted. His works employ large barren landscapes which add a sense of loneliness, isolation to his paintings.
This is enhanced by his cool meticulous attention to detail.


Almost all of Wyeth’s paintings were set in the place that he lived. Wyeth included everyday folk with whom he came in contact, Christina, the gentleman and field hand depicted below all lived within this rural community.

Characteristics of his work:

  • Subdued colour palate
  • Emotionally charge
  • High realistic renderings
  • Isolation and isolation
  • Local landscapes and people – Regionalist overtones in his work.
  • Nostalgia and sentimentality for a simple rural American lifestyle
  • Timeless quality to the work – could be today, or in the past.

Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth


This is perhaps Wyeth’s most famous work and one of the best-know American paintings of the 20th Century. It uses large open spaces set within the rural landscape. Wyeth captures the local landscape of Christina’s world in a realistic sense.
He also captures Christina’s narrative, real woman who was unable to walk because of degenerative muscular disorder. Wyeth painted Christina in several of his works. Here you can see the enormity of Christina’s challenge, with the house painted in the distance and Christina’s frail body isolated from the house with the large field that stretched out in front of her.
Wyeth’s use of a disabled character acts as a metaphor for the harshness of the landscape he has painted. His subdued colours further enhance this feeling of isolation.


Field Hand, Andrew Wyeth


Field Hand is another painting that is created with a subdued palate that is meticulously executed – note the bark on the tree and the field hand’s clothing and face details. Again Wyeth’s character is physically disabled repeating Wyeth’s metaphor for the harshness of the local landscape.
Bill Hoper was a blacksmith and handyman who wore a hook on one arm, that can be seen lying across the tree trunk. The field hand sits alone amongst the landscape, propped against the tree trunk looking at the vast landscape unfolded before him.
Wyeth once again adopts themes of isolation and alienation so commonly found in realists’ work.

That Gentleman, Andrew Wyeth


Wyeth’s neighbour is the subject of this work. The artist’s intention was for people to take notice of the quiet unsung heroes in our lives. His subdued colour palate of simple blacks greys and browns help enhance the setting.
Wyeth’s quiet contemplative space captures the man and his quiet meticulous character. This makes the viewer look into a private moment man and to become introspective- what is the man thinking? Where is he? Who is he?
His shoes are carefully placed on paper to stop soil marking the table. Wyeth spoke of how this man mended his own clothes with care, and shows this idea with the scissors hung up correctly on the wall behind.
He was a simple man with great dignity that Wyeth respected. He plays on the word gentleman, as it described his subject well, but also tells how the old man always referred to all objects as” that gentleman”.

Andrew Wyeth, Self-Portrait, 2013

George Segal

george seagal artist

George Segal was a sculptor who also worked within the realist tradition. He captured the motion of mid-action in his unfinished figures that were minimal in form. Cast from live models initially, Segal’s work is characterised by its unfinished appearance which the artist retains in the final work.

Feelings of loneliness, isolation and sadness are often at the heart of Segal’s sculpture.

His work is confronting to the viewer, capturing often highly personal everyday scenes. He blends the ideas of the real and the dream world he creates, posing the question -What is real?


  • Casting with orthopaedic bandages dipped in plaster,
  • haunting and memorable figurative art
  • Life-sized models based on his body and of friends, family,
  • Works seated at lunch counters, poised on street corners, or waiting in train stations.
  • inhabit three-dimensional environments that evoke everyday spaces.
  • One can walk around characters lost in their own universe.


Depression Bread Line, George Segal


In Depression Bread Line, Segal cast the final sculpture in bronze. Five figures line up to receive whatever food is available in the harsh climate of the Great Depression. The work captures the mid-action of the men waiting to receive their rations. Such queues were frequented by the poor at the time, ready for any handout that they could get.
The five figures are downcast, isolated and awaiting rations. The hunched hatted men’s stature in their old overcoats help to cement the pain and isolation that each character is feeling.
These life-sized sculptured figures were cast from friends and family.

The Holocaust, George Segal


In this powerful memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Segal employs his signature plaster cast style to evoke a concentration camp. Again he used friends and family to model the individual sculptural pieces.
The work was inspired by photographs taken at the end of World War II. The work is an artificial scene placed in another everyday location- the Legion of Honor Park, San Francisco. The work partial obscures the view of the Pacific Ocean, but is a poignant reminder of the alienation of people during the Holocaust.

Gay Liberation, George Segal


Gay Liberation was installed in Greenwich Village, in a park across form the Stonewall Inn. After Police raided the Inn in 1969, angry activists protested and demanded homosexuality be decriminalized. The Stonewall Riot led to the gay liberation movement in the USA and the freedom of same-sex couples to co-exist in public.
Segal had cast the monument in 1979 but stiff opposition by different groups prevented the monument form being place where it is now until 1992. The work is cast once again from Segal’s family and friends, and produced in bronze painted with white lacquer.
The life sized figures are placed on benches within the park, expressing the need to overcome discrimination and prevent alienation and loneliness.

George Segal at work…


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Real Not Real Enough For Ya? The Realists Vs. The Super Realists


By the 1950s, the centrer of the art scene was now well-embedded in the USA. Artists set about making their mark on the world with new and provocative styles. Abstract Expressionist work had its roots in Early 20th Century modernism.

These paintings fell into one of two camps – 1) the gestural action and 2) colour field paintings.

Source: Tate Gallery

Pop artists also emerged at this time, reacting to the increasingly commercial world that Americans were embracing. Andy Warhol looked to the models of production and advertising that companies were using in the mass production of goods.

Pop Art had aimed to bring the real world into art, and in doing so making it more accessible to the general public.


Source: MOMA

Eventually however, artists grew tired of the abstract art of Pollock and pop cultural icons of Warhol. They especially reacted to the loss of the subject in Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist works.

Source: Artsy


Super-realists (also known as hyper-realists and photo-realists) focused on putting the subject back into art. The use of a shallow space replicated the camera’s field of vision but the images were painted. This serious attention to detail that super-realists used depicted real life subjects that were so well rendered, it became difficult to pick between painting and photo.

Source: bob520

Often these works were cropped to make the most of the canvas space and the depth of field. Another characteristic in super-realist work was the use of reflection.

Comparing the works of realists and super-realists

Like the realists working in the first half of the 20th Century, the super-realists set out to discover the “truth”. While these super-realists achieved the image of reality, realists had also concentrated on capturing the feel of a scene.

This distinction can be seen when you look at the following two works.

Looking at the following two portraits the distinction between realist and super-realist works becomes clear. The earlier work of the realists not only focused on the image, but capturing the sentiment of the character and their situation.

Big Self-Portrait is directly copied from a Polaroid Chuck Close took of himself, exercising the intention of the super-realist to capture the way the world looks.


On the other hand, Alice Neel’s depiction of Andy Warhol is more roughly constructed, but delivers more information. This somewhat haunting image of the pop artist portrays a man scarred from the world, damaged and isolated by the fame he sought and fortune he amassed.

It does not simply show the public persona we have seen in photographs. Here Warhol is naked to his waist with his eyes are shut, suggesting a man who is troubled and conflicted. This exposes Warhol’s ordinary self, something he guarded and kept concealed from the world.

He concealed his appearance under his characteristically high-necked jumpers, large spectacles and blonde “fright wig”. The scars visible on his chest serve as a visual reminder of the assassination attempt on his life in his studio.


Close’s work, on the other, hand gives a “photographic” sense of the world. The viewer, however, needs to force themselves to remember that the portrait is only a two-dimensional illusionistic painting. This is difficult given the overwhelming three-dimensional feel of the work.

Of key importance is Close’s attention to detail and the painting’s formal elements (e.g. scale and detail), rather than the narrative of place and character we see in the Warhol portrait.

These two works illustrate three chief differences between the realists and the super-realists.

  1. Super-realists used the camera to gather information.
  1. They used mechanical methods to transfer their images to the camera
    1. Less personal than to the realist painting
    2. Realists paint the “total” reality, not just the look of it. The work is more than just visual for the realist
    3. Realists are more painterly in their approach, which allows you to see the artist within the final product.
  1. Super realists’ works are created to a standard that is indistinguishable from a photo
    1. Uniform surface
    2. No paint marks
    3. Use of airbrush when necessary

Here is Chuck Close’s “Linda”, from 1975-76…


Two key super realist artists are the Americans Richard Estes and Audrey Flack.

Richard Estes

Estes has often been seen as the founder of the photo-realist movement. His hyper-realist compositions of New York are carried out with meticulous attention to detail. Entire street scenes, ferries out on the Hudson River, and train carriages are all scenes Estes has depicted.

Each work is set to enhance what we see naturally. One truly outstanding accomplishment is his use of paint in the creation of reflections.


Estes works are usually oil paintings based on multiple photographs. Look out for the following:

  • Reflections – important in his work to give illusion of solid appearance. These do raise important questions like “what image IS real?”
  • Like many of the realists, Estes explored issues of loneliness and alienation that is linked to artistic detachment. Often there are no sightings of people within his work
  • The creation of order as an important aspect of his work (rejecting the chaos of Abstract Expressionism).
  • The use of signage to show space – two dimensions (the flatness of the words) versus the signs themselves (their depth and 3D composition).
  • his use of solid colours, visible brushstrokes (rare in super-realist works)
  • hard-edged forms, sharp definition, large-scale works that are highly detailed

Supreme Hardware, 1974


(sense of alienation/loneliness, use of signage (2D writing on 3D sign), formulated composition, great use of reflection in windows, exceptional detail, solid use of colours)

Telephone Booths, 1967


(reflections – in the glass and metal frames of the street opposite and taxis passing, great care in formulation of composition – balance and symmetry on both axes) signage- telephone and reflected shop signage form across the road)


(Again loads of reflection in the use of the glass window, lack of human subjects – loneliness and alienation in a large city) meticulous detail in street detail and shop fronts/windows, street cobbles and parked cars; composition formulated and perspective drawn in space and reflection)

Watch this interesting video interview with Richard Estes at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Audrey Flack

Audrey Flack is another notable hyper-realist. Influenced by the 17th century Dutch painters, her lustrous works are rich in both colour and texture. The tradition of Vanitas like Wheel of Fortune and Marilyn were used by these Baroque painters who portrayed the meaning of happiness in life.

They arranged an assortment of carefully selected objects to convey meaning within their work.

Jolie Madame, 1972

Source: NGA

Flack’s characteristic still-lifes are huge, almost billboard like, in size. These illusionistic paintings use the trompe l’oeil (“trick of the eye”) technique to fool the viewer into thinking the objects are real. She would also airbrush the paintings to eradicating any trace of the artist’s brushwork and create a sense of objectivity.

World War II, 1977


Each work is a composed scene with a somewhat jumbled appearance This helps to add a sense of reality – chaos rather than complete order. Her canvases are flat with a bunch of 3D objects squished into the picture space.

Each object is deliberately chosen, symbolic of the points she is raising. For example, the lipstick symbolises commercial objectification of women. Links to Pop art are also found in the bright use of colour, reactions to the media and the iconic symbols that Flack often uses in her paintings.

Marilyn, 1977


Looking at the assorted elements, we find commercial products with photographs, paint brushes, pearls, books and fruit. The work is airbrushed and jumbled within a shallow space. As a Vanitas, this still life deliberately alludes to the vanity of worldly pleasures in what is a transient life.

Look carefully to find:

  • Marilyn – the work acts as a commemorative meditation to Marilyn Munroe, her life, death and celebrity.
  • The cut fruit -references death, as its flesh will too soon wither and die.
  • An hour glass, watch and candle also highlight the fleeting nature of life.
  • The lipstick, compact, perfume and jewellery reference Munroe’s sex-symbol status with the media

Wheel of Fortune, 1977-78


Again Flack renders her objects as a three dimensional illusion. The space is flat and juxtaposed objects tell stories related to the still life. Once again we see pop art colours, adding a brightness to the work.

Look for the following:

  • skull, lipstick, dice, flickering flame of the candle, tarot card, beads and mirror – each are carefully chosen objects linking to death,
  • the future is linked to the inclusion of the dice (your fate is pre-determined and cast much like the throwing of a dice)
  • the appearance of beauty and youth signified by the photograph of the young woman. This is juxtaposed against the skull to show fleeting nature of youth and life.

To learn more about Audrey Flack, watch this interview she did with Eldridge & Co.