This new style is sometimes described as "realistic." This adjective and its opposite have become not only critical terms in the several arts, but also the commonest retort in the arguments of daily life: "That's unrealistic."---"Be realistic!" In all uses it is a regrettable pair of words. It begs the difficult question, what is the reality? Artists and ordinary people alike spend much of their time trying to find out---what do I perceive? what are the facts? If Renaissance painting gives us "the real world at last," why does it look so blindingly different in Michelangelo and Raphael? And it goes on diverging: is nature---is reality---in Rubens or in Rembrandt? Reynolds or Blake? Copley or Allston? Manet or Monet?
True, all these artists present features of the world that are recognizable, in addition to common features of the art of painting itself. But the total effects differ; they correspond to the different visions of reality that dwell in the minds of different individuals, whether painters or not. Reflecting on the evidence, one would venture the generality that reality is to be seen in all of them and in others too. All styles of art are "realistic." They point to varied aspects and conceivings of experience, all of which possess reality, or they would not command the artist's interest in the first place and would not spark any response in the beholder. The variety of the Real confirms the importance of "taking" as a factor in life. Realism (with its implication of Truth) is one of the great western words, liek Reason and Nature, that defy stable definition. It will come up again for discussion. Here it is enough to question the term, and if one is needed to mark the difference between works that "resemble" rather than "symbolize," the word naturalistic is the less misleading of the two---perhaps.
- Jacques Barzun, "From Dawn to Decadence".