In the visual arts, for example, realism can be found in ancient Hellenistic Greek sculptures accurately portraying boxers and decrepit old women.
Realism rejects imaginative idealization in favour of a close observation of outward appearances.
The artists of the Realist school which emerged in France in the mid 1800's wanted to do away with the idealization of subjects which was a common feature of some other art movements such as Neoclassicism and Romanticism.
Major realists included Gustave Courbet, J. F. Millet, and Honoré Daumier.
Realist literature is defined particularly as the fiction produced in Europe and the United States from about 1840 until the 1890s, when realism was superseded by naturalism.
Courbet (1819–1877) established himself as the leading proponent of Realism by challenging the primacy of history painting, long favored at the official Salons and the École des Beaux-Arts, the state-sponsored art academy.
The groundbreaking works that Courbet exhibited at the Paris Salons of 1849 and 1850–51—notably A Burial at Ornans (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and The Stonebreakers (destroyed)—portrayed ordinary people from the artist's native region on the monumental scale formerly reserved for the elevating themes of history painting.
The Realist movement in French art flourished from about 1840 until the late nineteenth century, and sought to convey a truthful and objective vision of contemporary life.
They painted in a style that “demanded detail – local color in a literary as well as in an artistic sense – and detail rendered with illusionistic veracity; the button-hole of a cloak, the pommel of a dagger.”
Artists moved away from the Age of Reason of the 18th century to a new need for creating art with historical and realistic accuracy. According to Honour and Fleming, the moderate painters of France were known as the juste milieu, or the happy medium.
Realism sets as a goal not imitating past artistic achievements but the truthful and accurate depiction of the models that nature and contemporary life offer to the artist.
In the visual arts this spirit is most obvious in the widespread rejection of Romantic subjectivism and imagination in favor of Realism - the accurate and apparently objective description of the ordinary, observable world, a change especially evident in painting.