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Naturalism Collage

Started: 1820s

Ended: 1880s

"You must interpret Nature with entire simplicity and according to your personal sentiment, altogether detaching yourself from what you know of the Old Masters or of contemporaries. Only in this way will you do work of real feeling."

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Signature

Summary of Naturalism

"Naturalism" is a term with a vexed and complex history in art criticism. It has been used since the 17th century to refer to any artwork which attempts to render the reality of its subject-matter without concern for the constraints of convention, or for notions of the 'beautiful'. But since the late 19th century, it has also been used to refer to a movement within painting - initially seen to be based in France, but whose origins and legacies were latterly found to extend all over the world - which attempted to depict the human subject in its formative relationships with natural habitats and social milieus, with a visual accuracy approaching that of photography. Informed by elements of Romanticism and Realism, Naturalism was at one time the dominant trend in Western art, only retrospectively eclipsed by the attention paid to its contemporary movement, Impressionism.

Key Ideas

Naturalism partly inherited the legacy of Realism, a school of French painting which rose to prominence in the mid-19th century, whose exponents, such as Gustave Courbet, focused on scenes of everyday working life. Naturalism is often equated with Realism, but it was only defined some decades later - experiencing its heyday during the 1870-80s - and was more concerned than the older movement with a hyperreal visual compositional precision; and with integrating the human figure into an enveloping landscape or scenario. In this sense, the unique achievement of Naturalism was perhaps to fuse the ideology of Realism with the techniques and effects of Romantic landscape painting.
Naturalism was one of the first movements in modern art to give expression to nationalist and regionalist sentiments. From the Norwich School of painters based in rural east England to the Peredvizhniki group whose touring exhibitions took them all over Russia, Naturalist artists tethered their aesthetics to particular locations: often rurally located, and always ones with which the artists were deeply and intimately familiar. This was one of the ways in which Naturalist painters helped to democratize art, making its subjects comprehensible and familiar to a larger viewership.
The development of Naturalism, like the evolution of modern art in general, was profoundly impacted by the development of photography. But whereas the general effect of this new technology was to force painters into other areas of creativity than the lifelike representation which the camera could achieve in minutes, Naturalist painters took on the new medium on its own terms, creating works of hypnotically lifelike effect which were unparalleled in art history.
Naturalism Image


The term "naturalism" has generally been used in two related but distinct contexts. The lower-case term "naturalism" has been used very broadly, to describe any art that attempts to depict reality as it is. The term in this context was first used by the Italian critic Giovanni Pietro Bellori in 1672, to refer to the work of Caravaggio and painters influenced by him, whose emphasis on truth to life precluded conventional considerations of beauty and style (the effect is clear in Caravaggio's Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (1605-06), in which the Saint Anne's face and hands are depicted as weathered and old in order to emphasize her humanity.

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