Naturalism: beyond the ideals to capture the true details of life

The Village of Becquigny ”by Théodore Rousseau, c. 1857.

Since the 17th century, the term “naturalism” has been used to describe art and literature that compiles precise details on a subject. However, in the 19th century, an artistic trend was given the same name.

The naturalistic movement originated in France in the early 1800s in response to romanticism.

Painters who opposed idealized representations in the art of Romanticism sought to portray things as they were.

What is naturalism?

Naturalism is an artistic movement of the 19th century that sought to represent objects in a realistic way in their respective natural surroundings.

It became one of the major styles of the century and, together with realism, gave rise to the Impressionist movement. Naturalism is often associated with the French practice of painting landscapes in the open air.

What is the difference between naturalism and realism?

Naturalism is often confused with realism, another movement that was born in France in the mid-19th century. They both portrayed life as it was. However, there are subtle differences between the two styles of painting.

Realist artists sought to represent real life in a truthful way by depicting ordinary people who carry out their routines.

Naturalistic artists were not so concerned with the content of the painting. Rather, they were more interested in how they painted her, with as much realistic detail as possible.

In addition, many realistic paintings offer a commentary on the politics and social problems of the time they were painted, while naturalistic works mainly focus on depicting outdoor scenes and rural life.

Key artists of the naturalist movement

• John Constable

British painter John Constable is known for revolutionizing 19th century landscape painting. Constable rejected the highly idealized landscapes of the time and instead favored realistic representations of the natural world.

His influence spread throughout Europe, particularly in France, where his work was celebrated much earlier than in Great Britain.

In his 1821 painting The Hay Wagon, Constable depicts a scene at Flatford Mill, an area of ​​land owned by his father, Golding Constable.

On the landscape, the painter said: “I associate my neglected childhood with everything that is found on the banks of the Stour; those scenes turned me into a painter ”.

The composition illustrates the moment when a farm worker drives a horse-drawn cart through a shallow river.

Rather than painting the scene outdoors (or en plein air) like other artists of naturalism, Constable completed the painting in his London studio after making a series of sketches on the spot.

• Thomas Cole

British-American painter Thomas Cole is known for capturing the beauty of American landscapes, particularly those located around the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York.

Cole is often considered the father of the Hudson River School, a mid-19th century art movement spearheaded by a group of landscape painters who captured the Hudson River Valley and surrounding areas on their canvases.

Cole was the first artist to explore this territory and began steamboat tours of the valley from the mid-1820s onward.

His work, Sunrise in the Catskill Mountains, shows the Catskill Mountains as the morning mist rises and surrounds them.

The work offers a realistic snapshot of the untamed nature of the United States during the 19th century.

• Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

The French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot made frequent trips to the Fontainebleau Forest from the late 1820s onwards, where he met the Barbizon School.

These artists tried to strip the French landscape of its glorified past by painting only what was actually there.

In his 1830 painting, Forest of Fontainebleau, Corot makes the rugged landscape his protagonist, complete with deep shadows and natural light. However, it also includes the figure of a woman reclining by the water, reading a book.

Corot was one of the first painters to work with his easel outdoors. His en plein air technique was later adopted by Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet.

• Théodore Rousseau

Théodore Rousseau was a French painter of the Barbizon school. His paintings capturing the French countryside were created with impressive naturalism, but were regularly rejected by the French Salon; He even earned the nickname “le grand refusé”.

He stopped sending work to this institution until 1849, when three of his pieces were finally accepted.

His work, along with other painters from the Barbizon School, had a great influence on the genre of landscape painting and inspired the later generation of French Impressionists.

• Jules Bastien-Lepage

French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage wowed the art world with his honest canvases depicting rural life.

In his groundbreaking 1887 painting Hay Mowing, Bastien-Lepage made no attempt to romanticize the image.

It shows two farm workers taking a break in a hay field, exhausted after a day’s work.

The precision of the facial expressions of the subjects and the slumped poses, as well as the details in the natural landscape, characterize the painting as one of the most emblematic works of naturalism.

Bastien-Lepage said of the painting: “I have had a lot of hard work to establish my first ideas, and I was determined to simply stay in the true aspect of a little bit of nature.

Nothing in the usual arrangement of willows, with their branches hanging over people’s heads to frame the scene. Nothing of that”.

The famous realist novelist, Émile Zola, described the painting as “the masterpiece of naturalism in painting.”