What determines the creative life span of a style is one of the mysteries of art. Romantic realism, long a powerful movement in American painting, has unquestionably waned since 1940. It has never disappeared, and some of its finest examples are recent ones, but it is significant that most of the paintings reproduced here are by artists now dead or well past their middle years. Few younger painters have chosen to join them, and many older men who on belonged in their ranks have moved in other directions.
Perhaps one cause of this numerical decline has been the tendency of romantic realism to lose its true bearing. At its best, it is a form of realism modified to express a romantic attitude or meaning, but it has often escaped into what is just "good painting"--the sensuous manipulation of paint and painterly effects in a display of technical virtuosity. This preoccupation with method can be exciting and even creative in the youth of a movement, when its pioneers are forging a new vocabulary. But, once established, the vocabulary cannot be endlessly repeated for its own sake without deteriorating into mannerism; it must be used to say something. The only alternative is so to alter it that it again becomes a truly new method of expression, a new formal exploration. And this generally, but not always, leads the artist beyond the boundaries of the movement. The paintings illustrated by Karl Zerbe and Franklin Watkins might stand as examples here: The extraordinary textural treatment in the former, the free distortions and arbitrary color in the latter, give these works their principal interest, though they also raise the question of whether they properly belong in this chapter.
The main line of romantic realism lies in an opposite direction. Nearly all the good romantic realists working today long ago established the structure of their vocabulary and are using it to express their deeper, more mature perceptions. They are linked not so much by their persistent devotion to realism in the face of opposing trends; they are more truly linked by the fact that they have something to say about the meaning of life, and that they speak their messages with conviction. Realism is important to them, for they deal with specific situations in the drama of man and nature, which only realism can adequately portray. But a realistic style per se is not their end and is therefore not sacrosanct. Several of them have become noticeably freer in technique as they have matured, using limited distortions where they need them and even semi-abstract passages, like the pattern of Burchfield's sky and branches or the floating design of Marsh's "El" structure. In other words, their formal means, though not altering radically, have continued to grow primarily in response to expressive needs.
What these artists have to say differs widely from man to man, but in general they fall into two groups: those who deal with subjective moods and those who are more concerned with the interpretation of events about them. Needless to say, these are