Naturalism began in France in the mid-XIX century and manifested in theater, literature and visual arts – especially painting. This movement differs from Realism, even though both believe that art should be an objective and mimetic depiction of the outside reality, that is, the artists’ interpretation of what he sees in nature. Naturalism emerges because of Realism, as it is considered a radical extension of it by some critics. Émile Zola is seen as the main pioneer in literature during the movement emergence, as the author published works that talk about coal miner’s horrible working and life conditions. A similar theme can also be seen in Vincent van Gogh’s painting The Potato Eaters, as he portrays a deprived family sharing their dinner in a poorly lit room.
More than an artistic movement, Naturalism became almost a philosophical and scientific way of thinking and interpreting life itself. Boosted by Charles Darwin theory of evolution, it was believed that every individual is fundamentally and primarily shaped by his or her education, social environment, and inheritance – that is every human being is formed by nature that involves around them. Naturalism was also very much influenced by socialism, a left-wing political approach, and positivism, a philosophical strain of thought that also interlaced with nature itself. Because of this, artists would often depict the relationship between man and the power of nature. Acknowledging that man is a result of nature’s actions and is molded by it as well, just as Darwin states when he speaks of natural selection.
The Naturalist painters will follow in Gustav Courbet’s footsteps, a Realist painter, when it refers to the themes portrayed, but not necessarily the way they are portrayed. Scenes of their contemporary life are being painted in a more spontaneous way, and most painters have abandoned their studios to start painting almost exclusively outside. Many works that were produced under the Naturalist influence have a sketched-out quality with an unfinished look. This was primarily because these painters were against the predefined idealized rules of the Classic Academies, especially when it referred to landscapes and the human form. John Constable is considered a pioneer because of his work Flatford Mill, even though he later turns to Romanticism.
The Newlyn School in Britain approached rural Naturalism with a more sentimentalist feeling, having Sir George Clausen, Edward Stott, and Henry Herbert La Thangue as the school’s leading and standout artists. In the painting The Old Gate, Stott gracefully portrays a typical rural scene, as three young people seem to be bringing a couple of horses in their gate at the end of the day. The scene is, as the artistic movement states, very natural and warm. In the painting The Harvest, Clausen beautifully captures a typical rural scene in a heartfelt way, but with a dramatic composition. La Thangue was very literal about portraying the rural life, as he warmly and comfortably paints Off To Work and Sussex Orchard, both paintings showing the reality of the life in the farm. He also paints lonely and colder scenes, like Dawn.
As the artists that worked under the Naturalist influence would paint mostly outdoors, their art featured the splendor they saw in nature. Benjamin Williams Leader, also a British painter, became famous for his breath-taking landscapes, like The Valley of The Lleder North Wales, with rocky mountains and trees bathed in natural orange-pink light from the end of the day. With much cooler colors, Alfred Parsons was able to equally paint a comforting natural scene in Landscape with a Windmill. Painting a faraway windmill and a cloud-filled sky, Parsons truthfully depicts this landscape as it naturally is.
As the movement originates in France, many French artists also start painting in a more Naturalist way. Jules Bastien-Lepage was able to honestly capture two peasants, in the painting Haymakers, as they seem to be exhausted after a hard day of labor. The man in the back is fallen on the grass, resting with his hat over his face. The main figure, a woman, is sitting with a blank reaction on her face as if she didn’t even have the energy to express emotion, and her hands are fall on her lap.
Naturalism was an important step closer to modern art because it strongly denied the Traditional values, standards, and themes being imposed by the academy. Artists of this movement were no longer interested in painting in a perfect academic way, neither were they willing to portray the Greek or Christian culture like their antecessors, but in a portraying what they saw and felt from nature.