Andrew Wyeth was almost the only realist painter to overcome the 20th century. He started his career at the venerable and modest Macbeth Gallery, where his work was priced at $300-600. By 1959, his work was pulling as much as $100,000. Wyeth’s prices continued to rise rapidly until the 1980s, when he withdrew entirely from exclusive gallery representation. He could afford to ride out Post-Modernism, which in many ways has been a bleak period in art history.
During these same years, a counter-rebellion was brewing in the form of the Atelier Movement, which sought to reinstate classical values in painting. While some of what they did was contrived and self-conscious, they provided a way forward for traditional craftsmanship in painting.
The first fifteen years of the 21st century saw a resurgence of sales in realistic painting, both in quantity and quality. This new market is dominated by a few players: Alex Katz, George Condo, Peter Doig, John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton.
Of these, only Katz and Peyton are realists in the traditional sense of the word, in that they deal with realistic subjects in an observational way. Currin paints overt sex activity and cartoonish figures, in a harsh parody of the much-nicer Stanley Spencer. Condo coined the expression “psychological cubism” to describe the cavalcade of weirdos inhabiting his paintings.
Scotsman Peter Doig is the leader of the pack, far outselling any other contemporary realist. He is, in many ways a magical realist, painting narratives instead of scenes and framing them in unreality. In this, he is much like Andrew Wyeth, and far from older traditions of realism.
The 20th century was an age of clear-eyed vision. It was an age of “better living through science” and rationalism. Skepticism about faith, relentless analysis, and scientific certitude were its bywords. It’s interesting that its final great art movement was not abstraction or the bleak intellectual landscape of minimalism, but realism with very human, emotional kinks thrown in.