It has become fashionable to say that painters are returning to realism. Such talk is almost always accompanied by skeptical remarks about difficult or obscure art and observations on the bankruptcy of the avant-garde. Some have said that we are at a turning point in the history of modern painting—and of modernism itself: that the very foundations of modern art are being shaken. Last June, Newsweek ran a cover story on the subject under the headline, “Art Imitates Life: The Revival of Realism.” The Newsweek article reproduced paintings by Lennart Anderson, William Bailey, Jack Beal, Rackstraw Downes, Jane Freilicher, Gregory Gillespie, and Philip Pearlstein, among others, and explained that “with the waning of modernism, painters who paint pictures of the real world are back in favor.”

It is true that realism is “back in favor,” at least to some extent. But many of the...

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