Naturalism in art represents the orientation of artists towards the most natural forms in their work. This tendency can be recognized either in individual elements of the work of art or in its entirety. As such, this term is used for the purposes of analyzing this artistic trend regardless of the time period in which the work was created.
Naturalism also refers to an artistic movement that developed in informal forms during the first half of the 19th century to reach the peak of popularity in the second half of the 19th century. The determination of painters to follow the path of John Constable in order to achieve the most credible representation of natural reality was present throughout Europe and America. On the wave of naturalist style numerous art movements or schools have emerged, such as Norwich School, Barbizon school, Hudson River school, Russian Wanderers, Hague School, and others.
Main Characteristics of Naturalism
Naturalist art is based on the idea of recording an authentic moment instead of artistic intervention in terms of scene and theme. This kind of artistic expression gradually appeared throughout the 19th century and became more and more present as a kind of response to the neoclassical visual tradition. That tradition meant everything that naturalism wanted to neglect – classical role models in the domain of themes and forms, harmony based on the artist’s invention, etc. The staging that is implied in many directions belonging to the field of historicism, in naturalism is completely absent. It would be ideal, according to the principles of naturalism, to remove every kind of artist’s superstructure of the seen scene – however, such a kind of complete distancing was certainly not entirely feasible.
The social changes caused by the industrial revolutions greatly influenced the spread of naturalism. Many modernization processes, including the mass migration of people from villages to cities, influenced the creation of the phenomenon of return to nature and opened the way for art and philosophy to answer the old question of the relationship between man and nature in the new industrial world. The very term Naturalism in a modern context was coined by the French writer Emile Zola.
Naturalism and Realism
During the long nineteenth century, both the artistic phenomena of Naturalism and Realism left a significant mark on culture. In addition to compatibility in terms of time, these two art movements are approached by a pronounced similarity in the domain of themes and motifs, as well as painting techniques in general.
However, the primary focus in creating differs significantly. Artists in the naturalist movement realize their search for authentic painting qualities by experimenting with the very process of painting. The direct transmission of the acquired experience in nature excluding stylized and idealized depiction was an idea that guided naturalists. Unlike them, realist painters saw naturalness as the quality of a finished painting and not as a necessary feature of the painting process. The goal of realist painting was to bring motifs in a highly recognizable and credible form, but with a primary focus on the subject. Themes of realist painting were often engaged with the aim of presenting to the public the experiences of endangered and marginalized members of society.
Genres in Naturalist Painting / The Landscape Painting
The attitude of naturalist painters towards landscape paintings is what could be interpreted as the basis for the overall development of naturalism in the visual arts. The English painter John Constable played a key role in this process. His monumental landscapes were an example of authentic naturalist painting. It is important to point out that Constable transformed the painting of the natural world by throwing out the idea of harmonizing nature by constructing an “ideal landscape” in the studio. The centuries-old tradition of sketching motifs from nature and later incorporating them into the whole of the painted composition has been replaced by the revolutionary Plein Air painting. Painting landscapes in the Plein Air that Constable popularized with a new attitude towards natural light and natural landscape – significantly transformed not only the naturalist paintings but also modern art from Impressionism onwards.
Figural painting / Genre scenes and Portraits
Although the naturalist method of painting is most often associated with the Plein air technique in landscape painting, this widespread movement has produced many examples of figural painting. Portrait painting was highly represented, although not challenging enough to practice the authentic naturalist method of replicating nature. A kind of compromise was made by very popular genre paintings. It is often stated that the principle of recognizability is what has made this kind of art receptive to the masses. This principle was reflected in the well-known local natural wholes as well as in the ambience brought by the genre painting. The genre painting was characterized by scenes from everyday family life – working in the fields or enjoying leisure. Contrary to the tendencies of realist artists who sought the crudest truth of life, a line of sentimentality is noticeable among naturalists.
Norwich School (1803-1833)
The Norwich School originated from the Norwich Society of Artists. The key person for establishing this school and the gathering of many British landscape painters is John Crome. What especially characterizes Crome’s painting and the painting of his followers is the scientific approach to landscape observation. Thanks to the research of plant species characteristic of that climate, painters in Norwich managed to achieve a unique naturalist landscape painting in England. Prominent members of the group were John Crome, Robert Ladbrooke, Joseph Stannard, Henry Bright, James Bulwer, Henry Ninham, Arthur James Stark.
Barbizon School (1830-1875)
The Barbizon School was not a formally organized movement. Its collective action, although crucial for the development of naturalism, is more akin to an art colony. Numerous artists were inspired by the increasingly famous Constable’s painting in France. Following his ideas, these painters were among the first to make the French landscape the dominant subject matter of their painting. The naturalistic approach was also noticeable in the often shown scenes from peasant life. These scenes gained a particularly engaged dimension in European painting after the 1848 revolution. Key artists who belonged to this school are Theodore Rousseau, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jules Dupre, Jean-Francois Millet, etc.
The phenomenon of gathering painters in Barbizon and their painting of rural scenes will spread throughout France and Europe and become a new model of collective artistic activity through similar artist groups.
Hudson River School (c. 1825-1875)
Thomas Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School. The artists gathered around this school were inspired by the painting of the Barbizon School. The Hudson Valley and its accelerated transformation due to the process of industrialization have become a symbol of the harmony of man and nature in anticipation of the changes brought about by the modern age. The method of painting used by the members of this group deviates from the naturalist idea of realistic depiction in favor of a romantic vision of space. The painters of this school most often made sketches in nature in order to complete the painting in the studio. Hudson River School painting has generated a new phenomenon in American painting of national landscapes with almost sacral qualities. The most important representatives are Thomas Cole, Samuel Colman, Thomas Doughty, Asher Brown Durand, John Frederick Kensett, Thomas Moran, Francis Augustus Silva.
Hague School (c. 1860-1900)
Guided by the ideas of the Barbizon School, a group of Dutch painters organized a colony in the very south of the country in Oosterbeek that came to be know as the Hague School. Painters who gathered here painted spontaneous Plein air compositions from the surrounding area. Since the late 1860s, the activities of this group have been slowly relocated to The Hague. In addition to the characteristic muted color palette, the painting of this school additionally highlighted the reliance on the tradition of Dutch Golden Age painters. Significant representatives of the school are Johannes Warnardus Bilders, Barend Cornelis Koekkoek, Hubertus van Hove, Paul Gabriël, Johannes Bosboom, Sina Mesdag-van Houten, Floris Arntzenius.
Russian Wanderers (c. 1862- 1890)
The Wanderers or Peredvizhniki are a group of Russian painters who rejected the official classicist art canons. Fourteen painters left the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, refusing to create art based on rigid rules instead of creating art that is true to life. Guided by the Slavophile ideas of the famous literary critics Vissarion Belinsky and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, these progressive artists demanded the transformation of not only Russian art but the entire Russian society, primarily the emancipation of the serfs. The work of this group has gained great popularity. An important theme of their painting was the landscape, which in a naturalist light brings a scene of a true harmony of coexistence of man and nature. Also, topics from the everyday life of the middle class and peasants as well as national historical topics were very common. The important representatives of this art movement are Abram Arkhipov, Ilya Repin, Antonina Rzhevskaya, Alexei Savrasov, Yefim Volkov, Ivan Shishkin, Emily Shanks.
Newlyn School (1884-1914)
Another European parallel to the Barbizon School is the Newlyn School. This art colony in the southwest of England has attracted many naturalist artists. This fishing village with a picturesque environment has opened a whole range of naturalist motifs to artists – from the poetic qualities of the dynamic coastal landscape to the diverse scenes from the rural life of the local population. In 1899, Stanhope Forbes and Elizabeth Armstrong formalized the work of this art group by founding the Forbes School of Painting, which aimed to develop a predominantly figure painting. The members of this group were Stanhope Forbes, Frederick Hall, Walter Langley, Eleanor Hughes, Henry Scott Tuke.
Heidelberg School (c. 1886-1900)
The name of this art school refers to the rural area near Melbourne called Heidelberg. Over time, the group has included artists who have worked elsewhere in Australia. Naturalism met with a very positive response in Australia, given that it visually shaped various forms of national ideas that were expanding at the time. The patriotic features of the landscape in conjunction with the naturalist light palette and the impressionist brushwork corresponded to the needs of the Zeitgeist. Significant representatives of the group are Louis Abrahams, Charles Conder, E. Phillips Fox, Leon Pole, Arthur Streeton.
Notable Naturalist artists
- John Constable (1776-1837)
- John Crome (1768-1821)
- Robert Ladbrooke (1768-1842)
- Joseph Stannard (1797-1830)
- Henry Bright (1810-1873)
- James Bulwer (1794-1879)
- Henry Ninham (1796-1874)
- Arthur James Stark (1831-1902)
- Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867)
- Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878)
- Jules Dupre (1811-1889)
- Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875)
- Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
- Samuel Colman (1832-1920)
- Thomas Doughty (1793-1856)
- Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886)
- John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872)
- Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
- Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886)
- Johannes Warnardus Bilders (1811-1890)
- Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803-1862)
- Hubertus van Hove (1814-1865)
- Paul Gabriël (1828-1903)
- Johannes Bosboom (1817-1891)
- Sina Mesdag-van Houten (1834-1909)
- Floris Arntzenius (1864-1925)
- Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930)
- Ilya Repin (1844-1930)
- Antonina Rzhevskaya (1861-1934)
- Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897)
- Yefim Volkov (1844-1920)
- Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898)
- Emily Shanks (1857-1936)
- Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947)
- Frederick Hall (1860-1948)
- Walter Langley (1852-1922)
- Eleanor Hughes (1882-1952)
- Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929)
- Louis Abrahams (1852-1903)
- Charles Conder (1868-1909)
- E. Phillips Fox (1865-1915)
- Leon Pole (1871-1951)
- Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)
- George Clausen (1852-1944)