Although the nineteenth-century realist aesthetic was essentially bourgeois in its origins, by the early twentieth century it had been widely adopted in the parties of the Second International. But the precise definition of this aesthetic was debated and its definition was rendered more contentious as modernist forms challenged established naturalistic modes of representation in the visual arts. Modernism was associated with the principle of aesthetic autonomy (frequently – and misleadingly – collapsed into aestheticism) while realism was often linked to an instrumental or utilitarian conception of artistic purpose, despite the fact that many realist artists rejected such an equation. The stakes were raised after 1917, when the Bolshevik capture of power in Russia gave the definition of revolutionary art new prominence and urgency. This article takes as exemplars of these ideological shifts the transition from the theory and practice of the leading realist painter associated with the American Socialist Party in its heyday, John Sloan, to that of his friend, the prominent communist painter Philip Evergood, focusing particularly on their image of the crowd as an emblem of proletarian consciousness.
*Andrew Hemingway is Professor Emeritus of Art History, University College London.