Naturalism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Naturalism
The Definition of Naturalism
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.
By contrast, the capitalized term "Naturalism" is used more specifically to refer to much of the literature and art of the 19th century. "Naturalism" in this sense was coined in 1868 by the French writer Émile Zola, following criticism of his novel Thérèse Raquin (1867): in the forward to the book's second edition, Zola wrote a defense of "[t]he group of Naturalist writers to whom I have the honor of belonging". Largely as a result of this coinage, Naturalism was increasingly perceived as a distinct and important movement in literature and art - associated, like its predecessor, with a meticulous truth to life.
Zola's popularization of the term "Naturalism" is a good example of how art movements can be defined decades after the relevant stylistic traits and cultural networks have been established. By the 1820s, a prototypical form of Naturalism was already a dominant trend in landscape painting, partly due to the influence of the British artist John Constable. During this period, artists' groups and societies were established in various, internationally dispersed locations, including the Norwich School in east England, the Hudson River School in New York State, and, from the 1830s, the Barbizon School in central France, whose influence spread throughout Europe.
Though his work arose from the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British landscape artist John Constable can be considered a pioneer of Naturalism. Constable engaged in hours of near-scientific observation of the landscapes of south-east England, at different hours and seasons, and was an innovator of plein air painting, working on location to capture immediate sensory and emotional responses. He wanted to recreate nature 'as it was', without idealization or the artifice of the Neoclassical tradition, asserting that "[t]here is room enough for a natural painture." Constable is partly responsible for the re-conception of landscape painting by the late-19th century not as a humble subgenre of history painting, but as an independent and preeminent genre of visual art.
Throughout the 19th century, European academies remained bastions of the Neoclassical tradition. Within that tradition, landscapes were only considered fit subjects for painting if they were presented in a stylized manner as backdrops for historical or mythological tableaux. Accordingly, in 1816 the French Academy launched a Prix de Rome for "historical landscape", by which it hoped to encourage the named style. However, the establishment of the prize had a quite different effect, generating a flurry of activity amongst young landscape painters who were discarding Neoclassical convention, instead working in the tradition of the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters, and - following the critical acclaim of Constable's work at the 1824 Salon - often committed to painting outdoors.
Though he is now considered a major artist within Britain, in his own time Constable's work was more critically and financially successful in France. His work, particularly his use of color, influenced Delacroix and Gericault, the leaders of the Romantic movement in French painting, while his emphasis on landscape, combining a truth to subject-matter with a Romantic flair, inspired the painters not only of the French Barbizon School, but of the Norwich School in Britain, and the Hudson River School in North America.
The fiction and critical prose of the writer Émile Zola, born in Paris in 1840, had an important impact on the development and theorization of Naturalism in the visual arts. A childhood friend of Paul Cézanne, Zola's friendship with the painter continued into adulthood, with Cézanne even living for a time with Zola and his wife during the late 1850s. Zola developed an early enthusiasm for painting, and began producing newspaper reviews of exhibitions from a young age. He was particularly drawn to artists rejected by the Academy, and by the 1860s had become an established and influential art critic; in La Revue du XX Siècle in 1866, he defended the work of Édouard Manet, whose Déjeuner sur L'Herbe was the most infamous work included in the 1863 Salon des Refusés. In thanks, Manet offered to paint his portrait.
Zola was influenced by the French philosopher Hippolyte Taine (1828-93), who had presented a famous tripartite account of the origins of literary creativity, arguing that a writer's work was integrally shaped by "race, milieu, and moment": by the broad social mass of which they were a member; by their more specific cultural affiliations within that mass; and by the accumulation of life-experiences unique to them as an individual. Though this was a method for interpreting writing rather than a credo for original creation, Taine's sense of the individual as defined by its environment had a significant effect on the work of writers such as Paul Charles Joseph Bourget, Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant, and Zola, and became one of the underpinning concepts of what was later defined as "Naturalist" literature.
Favoring 'real-life' themes that often incorporated issues such as poverty, corruption, disease, and violence, naturalist writers were sometimes criticized for their pessimism, and for what seemed like a penchant for the sordid and scandalous. In fact, they can be seen as exploring the relationship between circumstance and the individual as defined by Taine. Zola's Thérèse Raquin is a classic of the genre, focusing on a young, unhappily married woman who has an affair with one of her husband's friends, with whom she conspires to kill her spouse. The plot is successful but the couple, by this point living together, are haunted by the murder, and become increasingly alienated; each initially planning separately to kill the other, they eventually commit suicide together. Zola stated that the novel was intended to be "a study of temperaments and not characters". Environmental influences were favored over notions of innate identity as determinants of human behavior, and real-life scenarios were chosen over imaginative flights of fancy. Naturalism in literature thus stood for an unyielding, potentially disturbing, but deeply honest attempt to portray human lives as they really were.
The movement was also associated with writers outside France, such as the North-Americans Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, both of whom were also journalists, and whose work conveys a sense of the universe's indifference to human fate. Crane's 1895 novel The Red Badge of Courage tells the story of a young soldier who enlists in the Civil War inspired by heroic stories, only to find himself fleeing instinctively during his first battle. Crane's intention was to create "a psychological portrait of fear", and his focus on the interiority of his characters, and sense of the individual's cosmic insignificance, make his work a forerunner of modernist literature.
Though the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage was not associated with any of the defining 'schools' of Naturalism, both Zola and the art critic Albert Wolff argued that his paintings were the true masterworks of the genre. His work had a profound effect on later developments within Naturalist style. Zola saw Bastien-Lepage as the artistic heir of the Realist movement, calling him "the grandson of Millet and Courbet", and arguing for the superiority of his work over that of the contemporary Impressionist painters. Through large-scale paintings such as Potato Gatherers (1879), Bastien-Lepage depicted the landscapes and inhabitants of his native region, Meuse in north-east France, with an accuracy and intensity that was almost hyperreal. With the display of his great work Hay Making (1877) at the Paris Salon of 1878, he became a figurehead for the international Naturalist movement: as one critic at the time noted, "[t]he whole world paints so much today like M. Bastien-Lepage that M. Bastien-Lepage seems to paint like the whole world." Bastien-Lepage's scenes of rural, agricultural, working-class life would influence artists from England to the United States, and from France to Scandinavia.
Schools of Naturalism
Naturalism so-called was primarily a French movement, and most of the works now seen as quintessential examples of the genre were produced by artists based in France, such as Bastien-Lepage, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, and the Russian émigré Marie Bashkirtseff. However, from the start of the 19th century onwards, artists' societies and groups had appeared all over the world working in styles that, in hindsight, were closely connected to Naturalism, all of them with a strongly 'regionalist' character. The Heidelberg School in Australia was the first movement to create identifiably 'Australian' landscapes - ones not heavily inflected by European aesthetic ideals - while the Perdvizhniki painters in Russia became synonymous with a distinctly nationalist art, focusing on the varied terrain of their home country and the everyday lives of its inhabitants.
Norwich School (1803-33)
The Norwich School was a group of British landscape painters which grew out of the Norwich Society of Artists, founded in 1803. The society held annual exhibitions from 1805 until 1833, and was originally led by the artist John Crome, who is also seen as the leading figure of the Norwich School. Working in both watercolor and oil, Crome, like other members of the group, advocated painting outdoors, undertaking scientific observations of the landscapes of his native region. Influenced by the Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael, whose paintings, such as Dune Landscape (1646), were based on careful studies of particular species of trees and plants - which are therefore recognizable in his finished works - Crome brought an unprecedented visual precision to works depicting the East-Anglian countryside. His Boys Bathing on the River Wensum, Norwich (1817) shows the Wensum River in Norfolk, and conveys a Romantic sense of the harmony between humans and nature. John Sell Cotman, a noted watercolorist, would subsequently lead the group, which played an important role in the establishment of landscape painting - including regional schools of painters - as the foremost artistic style in Britain by the 19th century.
Hudson River School (c. 1825-75)
The Hudson River School was a loosely associated group of artists based in New York State in North America, whose primary output between 1825 and 1875 was a rich body of landscape paintings. The artists initially focused on the landscapes of rural New York State - the Adirondacks, White Mountains, and Catskills of the Northeast - but gradually branched out into the American West. It was Thomas Doughty, renowned for his paintings conveying the pensive qualities of nature, who initiated the group's formation, but its most famous member was Thomas Cole, whose Romantic landscapes conveyed a sense of the vastness of the American terrain, and became so influential that he was lauded as the 'founder' or 'father' of the Hudson River School. Other notable artists associated with the group include Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church, who was especially well-known as a wilderness painter. Seeking out rugged and inspiring views, many of the Hudson River artists would create preparatory sketches en plein air but would return to the studio to finish their paintings. As a result, their work combines a naturalistic quality derived from hours of close observation with an impression of the sublime beauty of nature which is partly artificial.
Barbizon School (1830-1875)
In the early 1820s, a group of artists left Paris for the Forest of Fontainebleau, sixty kilometers south, with its acres of lush and rugged woodland, meadows and marshes. Compelled by a new interest in landscape painting - partly generated by the establishment of the "historical landscape" Prix de Rome in 1816 - the painters settled in the village of Barbizon on the forest's outskirts, where the Auberge Ganne became an informal artistic hub, providing room, board, and a setting for creative conversations and friendships. Out of this milieu, the group known as the Barbizon School was established by around 1830, its loosely collective activities continuing until around 1875.
In truth, the Barbizon School was neither a formally established school nor a rigorously defined movement, but it was nonetheless crucial to the evolution of Naturalism. Its de facto figurehead was Théodore Rousseau, an ardent advocate of plein air composition who maintained his practice of al fresco painting even in the chilly winter months. Deeply emotionally connected to the forest, his passionate appeals to protect the area from human development persuaded Napoleon III to establish a nature reserve there in the 1840s. Other important artists associated with the Barbizon School include Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, Charles-François Daubigny, and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, all influenced by Constable, and by the established traditions of Romanticism, and all of whom produced enchanting scenes of human and natural life set in and around the Forest.
Peredvizhniki (“The Itinerants” or “The Wanderers”) (c. 1862-90)
The group known as Peredvizhniki was established by fourteen Russian art students, who in 1863 defected from the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg to form an independent society, finding the Academy's rules were too rigid and confining. They were influenced by the literary critics Vissarion Belinsky and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose writing often functioned as a form of social commentary, and who advocated for the emancipation of the serfs, an end to state censorship, and for principles of social responsibility in the arts. Both were Slavophiles, and the Peredvizhniki artists inherited this nationalist intention, arguing that the Russian landscape and people required their own, distinct forms of art.
From 1870 to 1890, most important Russian artists were associated in some way with Peredvizhniki, which promoted a naturalistic approach to subject-matter, a brighter color palette than had been favored in Russian art, and - in the case of their landscape work - an emphasis on the harmony of humankind and environment. Some, like Ivan Shishkin and Isaac Levitan, produced only paintings of Russian landscapes, such as Shishkin's iconic 1878 work Rye, showing a group of pine trees in a field of rye. This painting is executed with photographic accuracy while simultaneously conveying a profoundly emotive quality, and a sophisticated allegorical sense. Shishkin was dubbed the 'singer of the forest' for his focus on Russian woodland scenes, while Levitan declared that "[t]here is no country more beautiful than Russia! There can be a true landscapist only in Russia." Artists from regions of the larger Russian state which then existed, such as the Ukraine, Latvia, and Armenia, were also associated with Peredvizhniki.
The Hague School (c. 1860-1900)
By the mid-19th century, the influence of the Barbizon School had spread all over Europe; in around 1860, a group of Dutch artists, inspired by their French peers, formed a collective based in Oosterbeek, in the rural south of the country. Like the Barbizon, Norwich, and Hudson River schools, this group focused on the landscape of their local region, and their activities drew a number of pilgrims to the area. They were partly drawn by the presence in Oosterbeek of Johannes Warnardus Bilders, an older artist whose pupils included Anton Mauve and the three Maris brothers, Jacob, Matthijs, and Willem. From the late 1860s onwards, this group gradually migrated to The Hague on the Dutch coast, many of them also visiting Fontainebleau to learn from the Barbizon painters, and to make works of their own in response to the French countryside. Other key members of The Hague School - first defined in 1875 by the critic Jacob van Santen Kolff - include Johannes Bosboom, Johan Henrik Weissenbruch, Jozef Israëls, and Henrik Willem Mesdaz. The group became known for a more muted color-palette than that of the Barbizon painters, and for the influence which they drew from Dutch and Flemish Golden Age painters.
The Newlyn School (1884-1914)
Influenced, like the Hague School painters, by the artists of Barbizon, the Newlyn School was an artist colony based in the fishing village of Newlyn in Cornwall. The artists were drawn to the area around Newlyn for its light and natural beauty, and because they could live there - in the poor, rural south-west of England - relatively inexpensively. The painters Walter Langley and Stanhope Forbes are seen as the two 'founders' of the school, which also included artists such as Frank Bramley, and the Irish Norman Garstin. In 1908, the painter Samuel John Birch initiated a second move, to the nearby village of Lamorna (for which reason he is often referred to as "Lamorna Birch"). Much of the Newlyn School's work focuses on the life of the local fishing community: women waiting anxiously for their husbands to return from sea; the everyday workings of the harbor and dock. Forbes's 1885 painting Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885) shows the women of the village buying and selling fish while a group of boats clusters on the horizon.
Some Newlyn School artists, such as George Clausen, Henry Herbert La Thangue, and Edward Stoll, practiced what was referred to as 'rural naturalism', a style that focused on depictions of rural agrarian life but which was sometimes given to sentimentality. La Thangue was interested in photography, and attempted a stylized photographic effect with works such as Return of the Reapers (1886).
In 1899, Stanhope Forbes and his wife, the painter Elizabeth Armstrong, formalized the activities of the Newlyn School by founding the Forbes School of Painting, which focused particularly on figure painting. The long-lasting influence of the Newlyn School - and of later Cornish artist colonies such as the St. Ives group - was confirmed by the establishment in 2011 of the Newlyn School of Art.
Heidelberg School (c. 1886-1900)
The Heidelberg School was a group of Australian painters influenced by the Barbizon School's emphasis on naturalistic detail, and by the stylized brushwork of the Impressionists. The core group included Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, and Charles Condon, and was given its name by the art critic Sidney Dickinson in 1891. The term refers to Heidelberg, a rural area outside Melbourne in south-east Australia, but the school subsequently incorporated groups based in other districts around the city, and in Sydney. During a time of emerging Australian nationalism, the painters created naturalistic depictions of the Australian landscape, and of working life in the bush.
The Heidelberg Group exhibition 9 to 5 Impression, held in Melbourne in 1889, was wildly popular, and almost all of the 183 exhibited works were sold. James Smith spoke for a number of critics in describing the paintings on display as "destitute of all sense of the beautiful," but the artists responded with self-publicizing pugnacity to this criticism, posting a copy of the review outside the exhibition, and so attracting more visitors. The exhibition is now seen as a landmark event in Australian art history, with works such as Frederick McCubbin's The Pioneer (1904), whose three panels depict archetypal scenes from the life of a pioneer couple, becoming talismans of Australian identity.
Irish and Scottish Regional Groups
The formation of regional artists' groups became a pronounced trend within the Naturalist movement, and was generally connected to burgeoning ideas of national identity towards the end of the 19th century. The Glasgow School, incorporating a number of smaller milieus such as the "Glasgow Boys", emerged in Scotland's industrial capital from around the 1870s onwards, and was both a forerunner and integrated element of the so-called "Celtic Revival" within fin-de-siècle Scottish and Irish art. Influenced by the Barbizon School, Impressionism, the Hague School painters, and the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, Glasgow School artists often focused on images of rural Scottish working-class life, though their work was more marked by Impressionistic traits than that of their Naturalist peers. James Guthrie's A Hind's Daughter (1883) gives a good sense of the group's overall approach, which was nuanced in different ways in the work of Joseph Crawhall, George Henry, E.A. Hornel, Arthur Melville, and many others.
Sometimes regional or national 'styles' of painting developed without being attached to a clearly defined movement or term, as in the case of late-19th-century Irish artists such as Augustus Burke, Norman Garstin, Aloysius O'Kelly, Paul Henry, and Joseph Malachy. Burke's most famous work, Connemara Girl (1865), depicting a young barefoot girl holding a bundle of wild flower while herding goats, has become one of the most identifiable images in Irish art.
Naturalism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Most of the acknowledged masterworks of Naturalism were landscape paintings. Indeed, even when human figures are depicted in Naturalist art, the focus is often on the natural scene which envelops them, as in Constable's Flatford Mill (1816-17). While this work focuses on a scene of rural labor - two boys towing a barge along a "navigable river", as the painting's subtitle indicates - the compositional emphasis is placed on the surrounding sky, tree-lined river, and fields. Similarly, in Thomas Cole's The Oxbow (1836), the figure of the painter is barely visible in the foreground, engulfed by the brooding, wild forest to the left and the cultivated floodplains to the right. In all such works, the emphasis, partly inherited from Romanticism, is on the unadorned beauty and majesty of nature, and the harmony of human life and the non-human world.
Genre scenes - scenes of everyday working life - were popular subjects for Naturalist painters, though some critics have found fault with their sentimental approach to working-class culture, particularly when the setting was rural. The origins of Naturalist genre painting extend back to the 1820s, when the French painter Camille Corot, during his visits to Italy, made forays out of his learned Neoclassical style to create scenes of Italian peasant life, such as his Italian Peasant Boy from 1825/27. Later in his career, Corot would have his working-class Parisian models dress in peasant costume, as in his dreamlike Reverie series (1860-65). Such works were often intended to illicit a sense of pathos. Jules Bastien-Lepage's The Small Beggar Asleep (1882) shows a remarkably fresh-skinned homeless child propped up against a wall in tattered clothing, his head lolling with exhaustion while his loyal dog rests beside him; with similar intentions, Walter Langley's Among The Missing (1884) shows the reaction of a fisherman's wife to news of her husband's loss at sea. In all such works, and in the genre painting of the Naturalist movement more generally, the overarching aim is to depict human life in its culturally and socially-mediated reality; or to show the foundational relationship between human life and the natural world.
Some of the early Naturalists, most notably John Constable, viewed portraiture as an unfortunate economic necessity, a means of extracting commissions from wealthy sitters. Nonetheless, Constable's portraits of his wife are notable for conveying the same warmth and intimacy as his landscape paintings, and would influence later British artists such as Lucien Freud. The most noted portraitist among the subsequent generation of Naturalists was arguably Jules Bastien-Lepage, who was awarded a Legion of Honor medal for his Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt (1879), depicting a famous actress of the period as a magisterial, ethereal presence. Subsequently, his portraiture was much in demand, and he produced likenesses of contemporary sitters including the Prince of Wales, as well as works based on historical figures such as Joan of Arc (1879), notable for its anachronistic, contemporary setting.
Other movements under the Naturalist aegis, notably Perdvizhniki, also incorporated portraiture. The founder of the Russian Itinerant group, Ivan Kramskoi, was known for his portraits above all else, including works depicting famous cultural figures such as Leo Tolstoy, and others focusing on everyday Russian archetypes, including his Old Man with A Crutch (1872).
Later Developments - After Naturalism
The legacy of Naturalism is wide and multifaceted, extending across a swath of artistic styles, movements and practices, and from the late 19th century up to the present day. Initially, its most marked influence was upon the development of Impressionism, which carried the Naturalists' emphasis on truth to life a step further by attempting to convey solely the visual data received by the eye, as in the work of Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and others. Many artists of the Impressionist generation were particularly influenced by the Barbizon School painters, especially Corot. Monet would famously state that "[t]here is only one master here - Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing."
The early-20th-century English critic Roger Fry was one of the first Anglophone writers to theorize this line of influence, arguing that the Impressionists' scientific emphasis upon the effects of light on color and shape, and their preoccupation with landscape painting, were both derived from Naturalism. In a 1920 essay, he wrote of Monet's "astonishing power of faithfully reproducing certain aspects of nature" in terms which clearly suggest the older movement's significance. Perhaps partly as a result, many noted Naturalist painters, including figures associated with the Barbizon School such as Theodore Rousseau, and others such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, are today celebrated as forerunners of Impressionism.
Naturalism's impact extends beyond France, however, and beyond the late 19th century. The majestic landscape paintings of the Hudson River School, in particular Thomas Cole, were a touchstone for the great American wilderness photographer Ansel Adams. More generally, the creative exchanges between Naturalist painting and landscape photography during the late 19th century were rich and extensive. In Russia, the work of the Peredvizhniki group casts a long shadow over the development of 20th-century painting - particularly the vexed project of Socialist Realism - while in Britain, the tropes of post-Naturalist, post-Romantic landscape painting endured beyond the 1910s-20s avant-garde, emerging again in the work of mid-20th-century artists such as John Piper .
As for the later 20th century and the present day, regional schools promoting painting of the local landscape have remained a common - if not always critically lauded - feature of artistic culture. The American Contemporary Realists of the 1960s-70s, including Neil Welliver, Jane Freilicher, and Nell Blaine, are amongst many movements to reinterpret the legacy of Naturalism in new contexts. The artist Lucien Freud, meanwhile, has acknowledged the influence of Constable's portraits upon his representations of the human body, while the contemporary painter Jenny Saville, influenced in turn by Freud, has taken a noticeably Naturalist approach to nude portraiture. The photographic clarity of Naturalists such as Dagnan-Bouveret can be seen as prefiguring the later work of Photorealists such as Chuck Close and Richard Estes, while the British artist George Shaw has arguably produced a new Naturalism of the suburban, British landscape.