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Modernism vs. Realism: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 7, 2023
Modernism is an artistic movement favoring innovation and rejecting tradition, while realism is a style depicting subjects truthfully and accurately.

Key Differences

Modernism, a movement across the arts and literature, sought to break away from classical and traditional forms, emphasizing new techniques and expressions. Realism, by contrast, focused on representing everyday experiences and conditions as they are, often highlighting the lives of ordinary people. Where modernism embraced abstraction, symbolism, and experimental forms, realism stayed true to depicting life without embellishment or idealization.
Modernist works are characterized by a deliberate departure from reality, exploring the inner feelings and psyche instead of the external world. Realist works, on the other hand, strive to portray the world in a straightforward and truthful manner, often addressing social issues and the human condition. Modernism encouraged artists and writers to explore and innovate with form, structure, and time, often leading to fragmented narratives and stream-of-consciousness writing. Realism, in its essence, maintained a linear approach to storytelling and a clear, comprehensible depiction of the world.
The ethos of modernism is encapsulated in its quest for the new, driven by the rapid changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including industrialization and the First World War. Realism emerged earlier, in the mid-19th century, as a reaction against romanticism, which was seen as overly idealistic and not representative of the real world. While modernism often features alienation, urbanization, and loss of meaning, realism presents a sober, sometimes stark, perspective on life's struggles and societal challenges.
Modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf pushed the boundaries of narrative and form, while realists like Gustave Courbet and Leo Tolstoy presented the world without artistic filters. The former embraced ambiguity, the latter clarity. Modernism can be seen as a response to an increasingly complex world, seeking to represent its fragmented reality, while realism sought to expose and critique the conditions of the existing world without resorting to escapism.

Comparison Chart

Time Period

Late 19th century to mid-20th century
Mid-19th century


Innovation, new forms, and techniques
Accurate depiction of everyday life


Abstract, symbolic, and experimental
Direct, literal, and detailed

Response to

Industrialization, WWI, modern life
Romanticism, idealization

Narrative Style

Fragmented, stream-of-consciousness
Linear, straightforward storytelling

Modernism and Realism Definitions


An artistic movement embracing novelty and rejecting tradition.
The gallery's new exhibit showcases modernism in 20th-century painting.


An approach in art and literature aiming to depict subjects as they appear in everyday life.
The novelist's work is praised for its adherence to realism.


A cultural trend reflecting the tensions of modern life.
His poetry captures the essence of modernism with its disjointed rhythm.


A movement rejecting idealization, focusing on the portrayal of real-world issues.
Her paintings reflect realism by showing life in the industrial era.


The philosophical movement towards re-evaluating old systems of belief in light of new discoveries.
Modernism in literature often questions the notion of an objective reality.


The practice of describing subjects without embellishment or interpretation.
The film's realism is striking, especially in its dialogue and settings.


A style of art, architecture, literature, and music that breaks with the past.
Modernism in architecture can be seen in the design of the Guggenheim Museum.


The attribute of accepting the facts of life and favoring practicality.
Her realism about the challenges ahead made her prepare diligently.


A period of experimentation in the arts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The writer's use of stream-of-consciousness was influenced by literary modernism.


A style where the artist avoids exaggeration and portrays life accurately.
Realism in his writing brought the characters and settings to life.


Modern thought, character, or practice.


An inclination toward literal truth and pragmatism.


Sympathy with or conformity to modern ideas, practices, or standards.


The representation in art or literature of objects, actions, or social conditions as they actually are, without idealization or presentation in abstract form.


What is modernism?

Modernism is an artistic movement characterized by a break with traditional styles and an embrace of innovation.

What defines realism?

Realism is a style in art and literature that aims to depict subjects truthfully and without artistic distortion.

Are modernism and realism mutually exclusive?

While distinct in their primary characteristics, some works and artists blend elements of both movements.

Can modernism be seen in music?

Yes, modernism influenced music, exemplified by composers like Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.

What genres does realism cover?

Realism spans literature, painting, and theater, among other artistic genres.

How did realism influence the theater?

Realism in theater introduced more naturalistic acting and stage settings, focusing on everyday situations.

When did modernism begin?

Modernism began in the late 19th century and reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century.

What prompted the rise of realism?

Realism arose as a reaction against romanticism and the desire to depict ordinary life as it was.

What are the key features of modernist literature?

Key features include stream-of-consciousness writing, fragmented narratives, and a focus on the inner lives of characters.

Who are some famous modernist artists?

Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp are notable modernist artists.

Who are some notable realist authors?

Notable realist authors include Mark Twain and Henry James.

Did realism have an impact on society?

Yes, realism often highlighted social issues, influencing reforms and societal perspectives.

Can a work of art be both modernist and realist?

While they have distinct approaches, some works incorporate both modernist innovation and realist depiction.

Is modernism still relevant in contemporary art?

Modernism's influence continues in contemporary art, though it has evolved into postmodernism and other movements.

How did modernism affect poetry?

Modernism led to free verse and a departure from traditional poetic forms.

How does realism differ from naturalism?

Naturalism is often considered an extension of realism, but it implies a more scientific and detached approach to its subject matter.

Is realism limited to visual arts?

No, realism is present in literature, cinema, and theater as well.

What is the legacy of modernism?

Modernism's legacy is its encouragement of experimentation and questioning of established norms in art and society.

What distinguishes modernist architecture?

Modernist architecture is characterized by minimalism, the use of new materials, and functional design.

Did realism influence any political movements?

Realism influenced political thought by drawing attention to social conditions and the lives of the working class.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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