Realism in art was an attempt to describe human behavior and surroundings or to represent figures and objects exactly as they act or appear in life. Attempts at realism have been made periodically throughout history in all the arts; the term is, however, generally restricted to a movement that began in the mid-19th century, in reaction to the highly subjective approach of romanticism.
The difference between realism and naturalism is harder to define, however, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. The distinction lies in the fact that realism is concerned directly with what is absorbed by the senses; naturalism attempts to apply scientific theories to art.
In art, a realist approach has been manifested in different ways at various times. The term realist, used to describe a work of art, has often simply meant that "ugly" objects or figures are represented, as opposed to those considered "beautiful." Frequently used to describe scenes of humble life, the term implies a criticism of social conditions.