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 & Accomplishments
- 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.
Artworks and Artists of Naturalism
The Hay Wain
This quintessential early work of Naturalist landscape painting depicts a hay-wain - a type of horse-drawn cart - being led across a shallow river by an agricultural worker perched on its back. The horses seem to have paused mid-crossing, as if to better present the scene to the viewer, and as the eye glosses the painting it is drawn inward by the soft curves of the river-banks, invited to linger over various details: the dappled reflections in the water, the foliage of the trees, and the sunlit depths of the field beyond, where a group of haymakers can just about be made out at work.
The landscape is that of East Bergholt in Suffolk, part of an area of south-east England, straddling Suffolk and Essex, now referred to as 'Constable country', in recognition of the artist's rich body of work produced in response to it. It was the landscape of his birth - to a wealthy family of agricultural merchants in 1776 - and, like various other Constable paintings, The Hay Wain depicts an area of land, Flatford Mill, owned by his father Golding Constable. The scene was therefore one familiar from childhood; Constable would later state that "I associate 'my careless boyhood' with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter." Constable would not, however, have painted en plein air - as became the fashion for Naturalist painters - returning to his studio in London to complete this work based on a series of preparatory on-site sketches. Moreover, while the painting focuses on rural labor, in contrast to the work of the Realists - the French painters Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, for example - Constable's emphasis is less on the figure in the hay-wain than on the natural scene enveloping him, indicating one of the key distinctions between the closely associated movements of Realism and Naturalism.
Works such as The Hay Wain were celebrated for presenting an apparently informal snapshot of the natural world while simultaneously drawing out its emotive, poetic qualities: its human dimensions. For this reason, Constable's influence extends over the whole subsequent development of Naturalist painting, particularly in France, where his work was accepted and celebrated much earlier than in his native Britain.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London
Sunrise in the Catskills
This painting offers us a view from a rocky vantage-point overlooking the Catskill Mountains, as early-morning mist rises from the valleys beneath. A precipitous edge, complete with jagged outcrops of rock, fallen trees, and tangled underbrush, frames the foreground, offering a snapshot of untainted American wilderness.
Sunrise in the Catskills is one of the earliest works created by the British-American landscape painter Thomas Cole in response to the landscapes of rural New York State, particularly the areas around the Hudson River Valley. Born in the industrial north-west of England, Cole had immigrated to America as a teenager with his family, and was the first artist to apply the aesthetics of European Romantic landscape painting to the territories of his adopted homeland. This work shows the view from Vly Mountain in the Catskills, a vista endowed with all the splendor of Caspar David Friedrich's Bohemia or Baltic Coast.
This work is the first of Cole's which can be seen as using the techniques of Naturalism to convey the sublime beauty of the American wilderness. It became highly influential, prefiguring Cole's later masterworks, and influencing other North-American painters such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt. These and other artists became known as the Hudson River School, a movement that dominated 19th-century American painting, and was a vital element of the broader Naturalist paradigm. Cole, older than most of the Hudson River artists, is often referred to as the 'father' of the school, and the importance of his work to the development of Naturalism in general cannot be overstressed.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington
View of the Forest of Fontainebleau
This painting, by the French artist Camille Corot, depicts the rugged terrain of the Forest of Fontainebleau, where the Barbizon School of Naturalist painters had established itself during the 1820s-30s. The great oaks of the forest cast deep shadows across the scene, while the stream is lit up by sunlight in the middle-distance; in the foreground, an artfully arranged young woman reclines on the edge of a deep pool, reading a book.
Born in 1796, Corot had been trained in the Neoclassical traditions of the French Academy, but already, during his first trips to Italy in the 1820s, he had begun to renege on aspects of the sharp Neoclassical style, and to turn away from its thematic emphasis on myth and history. In 1829, he visited the forests around Barbizon, establishing a number of creative friendships with the artists based there, and composing various works of his own in response to the area. This painting is the result of a year's worth of preliminary sketches and oil studies, and was completed in Corot's Paris studio for display at the 1830 Salon. Retaining the vestiges of a Neo-classical aesthetic, he added in the human figure, thought to be Mary Magdalene, whose presence therefore maneuvers the painting into the "historical landscape" category of which the Salon judges would have approved. The real focus of the scene, however, is the lush forest which encloses her: in an important sense, the human form becomes a backdrop, lending a sense of scale to the towering oak trees all around, vibrant with shadow and light.
Corot's work is seen as a bridge between the traditions of Neo-classicism and Impressionism that dominated the early and late 19th centuries respectively within the French art world. In providing this link, Corot also made vital contributions to the tradition of Naturalism, which, in one sense, marks the same fork in the road. He would later be hailed as the 'grandfather' of Impressionism by the artists associated with that movement.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington
Under the Birches, Evening
Also known as The Priest, this painting by the Barbizon School artist Théodore Rousseau shows a grove of birch trees at sunset, their mottled bark and golden leaves illuminated by the evening light, as they stand circled by the darkness that already shadows the foreground. Beneath the trees a single human figure, presumably the priest referred to in the alternative title, sits reading a book.
Rousseau began painting en plein air during the 1820s, and was a passionate and early advocate of landscape painting, at a time when it was still sidelined by the official tastes of the French Academy. He began making regular visits to the Forest of Fontainebleau from 1833 onwards, integrating himself into the school of Naturalist painters already based there, and in 1848 moved to the area permanently, one of the first artists to do so. This particular painting was created at a low-point in Rousseau's career, following a five-year stretch (1836-41) when every single work which he had sent to the Paris Salon had been rejected. Like all of Rousseau's landscapes, it would have been based on hours on close observation and sketches on site, but what is unique about this piece is the framing of the scene: the grove has no obvious path of entrance or exit, and, surrounded by darkness, the arrangement of trees seems artful to the point of appearing almost theatrical or staged. The influence of 17th-century Dutch landscape painters is evident in the subtle division of the painting into three horizontal bands.
While the image of a solitary figure in a natural landscape might remind us of the Barbizon School's Romantic forebears, this figure seems not so much empowered by the landscape as consumed by it. This impression of the relative insignificance of the human form in relation to the natural scene surrounding it is one of the defining features of Naturalism as compared to Romanticism. Indeed, the Barbizon School arguably exerted a more significant influence over the development of Naturalist style than any other school or group associated with it.
Oil on canvas - Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
In this breakthrough work from 1877, Jules Bastien-Lepage depicts a young, fresh-faced woman, exhausted after a day's labor, seated at the edge of a hayfield, while a male companion dozes behind her; their arms and legs are slack and prostrated from work. The high horizon line of the piece allows the hay-field, with its pale yellow and silver tones, to dominate the composition in one sense, yet the faces and bodies are picked out with such precision that they immediately draw the eye. The accuracy of representation, and the apparent informality of the pose, lends the painting a photographic quality.
Born in 1848, the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage was a contemporary of the second generation of Naturalist schools; yet he never associated himself with any group, and is more often spoken of as their predecessor than their peer, because of the enormous influence his work exerted over the development of Naturalist style. Like the Realist painters of the mid-19th century, Bastien-Lepage often depicted the working poor of his native region, Meuse in north-east France, but with works such as the Haymakers, he achieved a vivid, poetic intensity - partly through the precise rendering of the young woman's face - not matched by the exemplary works of French Realism: Gustave Courbet's The Stone Breakers (1849-50), for example. This reflects a deeper distinction between the two genres: whereas Realist painters, driven by an intense political awareness, focused on the social realities of labor, Naturalists such as Lepage were more centrally concerned with the integrity and accuracy of the visual composition, hence their greater emphasis on the landscapes enveloping their human subjects.
When he died in 1884 at the age of 36, Bastien-Lepage was already spoken of by the critics and artists of Naturalism with the kind of reverence generally reserved for figures of an older generation, and his work had already influenced the establishment of new Naturalist schools, such as the Glasgow Boys in Scotland. The display of Haymakers at the 1878 Salon was vital in establishing this reputation, and seemed to confirm Zola's assertion that Bastien-Lepage was "the grandson of Millet and Courbet", the heir of the Realist masters.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt
Jules Bastien-Lepage's famous portrait of Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt, the most eminent stage actress of her generation, depicts her in side-profile, holding a bronze statue of Orpheus created by Bernhardt two years earlier. Bernhardt had achieved some acclaim for her sculpture, and the subject of Orpheus, the lyric singer of Greek myth, was a favorite of hers. Wearing an elegant dress with prominent lace collar, the muted gold and silver tones of her clothing are echoed in the tonal palette of the background fabric. As a result, what Bastien-Lepage creates is a kind of Naturalistic take on celebrity portraiture, emphasizing the overall harmony of subject and background.
Bernhardt was a highly mythologized figure in her own day, known for taking on both male and female theatrical roles, and for her magisterial, highly stylized presence on stage. Suitably enough, Bastien-Lepage eschews any attempt at intimate identification of the individual - the side-profile seems to confirm her unknowability - focusing instead on the intricate detail and shading of the fabrics which envelop her, and on capturing her enigmatic, self-contained facial expression. The result is a highly visually accurate work which is nonetheless curiously impersonal, more of a rumination on the social phenomenon of celebrity than an empathetic treatment of an individual sitter.
Like his proto-Naturalist forebear John Constable, Bastien-Lepage made portraiture a key pillar of the Naturalist aesthetic. More than Constable's portraits however, Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt exemplifies an important, if sometimes sidelined, aspect of Naturalism's underpinning ideology: a belief not only in the formative relationship between the individual and the natural world, but also in the relationship between the individual and the society that molds them.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
This painting shows a crowd of young boys gathering around to inspect a mysterious object held by the oldest of them, who faces away from the viewer. Their worn clothing and shabby surroundings suggest an urban, working-class setting; a number of the boys wear school smocks, while to the right, a young girl, also in school dress, walks away. Buildings dominate the upper frame, so that only a sliver of sky, almost the same color as the plasterwork, is visible beyond. As with much Naturalist genre painting, the apparent informality of the scene, and the visual precision of its rendering, indicate a debt to photography.
Marie Bashkirtseff was a Russian artist and writer - born in 1858 in what is now Ukraine - who moved to France at a young age and formed a close friendship with Jules Bastien-Lepage. Of her own art she once stated: "I say nothing of the fields because Bastien-Lepage reigns over them as a sovereign; but the streets, however, have not still had their ... Bastien". This statement neatly sums up her artistic credo, while paintings like The Meeting exemplify her ambition to bring Naturalist aesthetics into the urban space. As with Bastien-Lepage's scenes of hay making and potato gathering, the painting captures the scene with a certain detached objectivity, whilst at the same time conveying a keen empathy for its subjects. In this sense, the work represents one of the key achievements of Naturalism: to combine the sociological awareness of Realist painting with the atmosphere and pathos of the Romantics.
Bashkirtseff exhibited this work at the 1884 Salon, where it was critically acclaimed but unrewarded with a medal. Of this setback she wrote: "[t]here is nothing more to be done. I am a worthless creature, humiliated, finished." The apparent melodrama of the statement reflects her tragic life circumstances: at the time the painting was exhibited, she was twenty-five years old and fatally ill with tuberculosis, dying just a few months later. Bashkirsteff became posthumously famous for the journal that she had kept from the age of thirteen, published in France in 1887 and seen as a striking, sui generis work of non-fiction. But the compositional intelligence and sociological awareness conveyed in her artwork remains less well-known.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Pardon in Brittany
This painting depicts a traditional religious custom in Brittany, showing the citizens of a rural village proceeding around the church courtyard, praying for forgiveness. Dressed in traditional ceremonial attire but barefoot, most of the penitents carry long, lit tapers; some of them, like the older women to the lower left, are on their knees. This painting was first shown at the 1887 Paris Salon, to great acclaim, with visitors and critics commenting on the near-photographic clarity of the scene.
Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret was a leading French Naturalist painter, who often took as his subject-matter scenes of peasant life in Brittany. Deeply influenced by Bastien-Lepage, he brought a new emphasis on photographic exactitude to Naturalist painting, using photographs as both a memory aid and a compositional tool. Paintings like this one, which seem to present an on-the-scene snapshot, were in fact the result of a complex process of studio composition, the tableaux rendered artificially for artistic purposes. On the back of the painting are two tracings of photographs, indicating that older woman to the lower left is the mother of a friend of the painter, while the young woman above is the artist's wife.
Building his finished works from composites of photographic images, preliminary sketches, and drawings of studio models, Dagnan-Bouveret established a complex, synthetic compositional approach that prefigured the mixed-media practices of early-20th-century avant-gardes. It is all the more ironic then, that he became a dogged antagonist of contemporary developments in modern art, indicating the extent to which Naturalism itself had become a stylistically and ideologically dated artistic genre by around the close of the 19th century.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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 (1830-75)
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.
Useful Resources on Naturalism
- 23k viewsCorot to Monet: ExhibitionsBy The National Gallery, London England
- 17k viewsBarbizon: The Cradle of Impressionism"Our PickBy Scott Saraceno Media Productions
- 22k viewsThe Voyage of Life, 1842, Thomas ColeBy the National Gallery of Art
- 15k viewsJohn Constable - The Way I See The WorldBy Sotheby's
- 99k viewsConstable: A Country RebelOur PickBy the BBC
- 265k viewsJohn Constable: The radical landscape of The Hay WainBy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.