"You must interpret Nature with entire simplicity and according to your personal sentiment, altogether detaching yourself from what you know of the Old Masters or of contemporaries. Only in this way will you do work of real feeling."
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Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Signature
"I believe . . . that it is of the greatest importance for a painter always to have his mind upon nature, as the star by which he is to steer to excellence in his art."
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Thomas Cole Signature
"It is better in art to be honest than clever."
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Théodore Rousseau
"Nothing is good but truth. People ought to paint what they know and love. I come from a village in Lorraine. I mean, first of all, to paint the peasants and landscapes of my home exactly as they are."
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Jules Bastien-Lepage
"[T]he world should be inclined to look to painters for information about painting. I hope to show that ours is a regularly taught profession; that it is scientific as well as poetic; that imagination alone never did, and never can, produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities."
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John Constable Signature
"Go to the country - The muse is in the woods."
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Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Signature
"Beauty in art is truth bathed in an impression received from nature."
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Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Signature

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.

Overview of Naturalism

Naturalism Image

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.

Key Artists

  • John Constable was an English Romantic painter chiefly known for his landscape paintings of the area surrounding his English home. His work remained largely unnoticed in England, but he was very influencial on the Barbizon School and the Impressionists in France.
  • Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was a nineteenth-century French painter and printmaker best known for his landscape paintings executed outside in the open air. He was highly influential to many of the French Impressionists.
  • A leading member of the Barbizon School, Theodore Rousseau primarily painted landscapes, and the forest of Fontainbleau in particular. He was able to infuse with emotion and character into his canvases, leaving the viewer with the impression of the power and mystery of nature.
  • Celebrating nature in all of its bounty, Thomas Cole is the founder of The Hudson River School of painting landscapes. Sometimes allegorical in nature, his works cast the American wilderness in a romantic light while bathing them in a 'celestial' glow.
  • Emphasizing natural light, Frederic Edwin Church painted detailed, romantic, and dramatic scenes of North and South America's wilderness.
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Do Not Miss

  • Named after the village of Barbizon, France where the artists gathered, the group of outdoor, Naturalist painters included Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-Francois Millet.
  • The Hudson River School was a nineteenth century American art movement that celebrated the wilderness and great outdoors. The Hudson River School artists were influenced by the Romantics, using dramatic scenes of nature to express the American ideals of their time: discovery and exploration.
  • The Russian "Itinerants" or "Wanderers" were a group of painters specializing in archetypal Russian views such as pine forests, wheat fields, and water meadows.
  • The Tonalists aspired to emulate musicality and inspire contemplation. By arranging color and forms, they believed that landscapes could evoke emotion and harmony.

Important Art and Artists of Naturalism

The Hay Wain (1821)

Artist: John Constable

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.

Sunrise in the Catskills (1826)

Artist: Thomas Cole

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.

View of the Forest of Fontainebleau (1830)

Artist: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

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.

Useful Resources on Naturalism

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Naturalism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 23 May 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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