The Naturalism movement swept through Europe and lasted for only a brief 20 years. It began in France in the late 1870's and by the early 1890's was already in decline. The godfather of the movement was the brilliant Jules Bastien-Lapage who died at the age of 36 and yet he fathered a very amazing group of devotees throughout Europe.
Jules Bastien-Lepage, The Ripened Wheat - 20"x 41" - 1880
Another group of young artists dubbed, Impressionists, were also on the move at this same time. Growing restless and tired of the same-old, same-old traditions of the French Academy and the resultant "predictable" works, a tension was created between the old way and a new way.
Spurred on by a rising middle class anxious to purchase art they could relate to, and by increased scientific discoveries, a group of influential writers and critics were calling for the "modern"...for change...for an art that reflected the times. Arising out of this came two major responses, Naturalism and Impressionism. Today we hear little or nothing of Naturalism while Impressionism and plein air painting is the rage.
Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Bretons Praying - 123" x 84" - 1888
The negativity toward Naturalism, as recorded in Gabriel Weisberg's book, Beyond Impressionism, the Naturalist Impulse, was in part due to the working methods of its artists.
Taking advantage of technological advancements in photography, the Naturalists may be considered the first photo realists. Using photos and sketches of their subjects done from life, they constructed very detailed, highly refined, sometimes life-size paintings from this material...a new type of painting never before seen was the result.
Charles Sprague Pearce, Woman in the Fields - 31" x 26"
These artists were academically trained. They possessed a mastery of drawing, human anatomy, and composition. Photography became a source of note taking and enabled them to achieve a level of detail and refinement that stunned the art world.
Peder Kroyer, Fishermen on the Beach - 1883
The Naturalist's goal was to capture a "slice of life" through images that were linked to country or urban life. They selected themes of daily life often featureing working people, depicted in a non-sentimental way...warts and all. Because of their stated goals, landscape was only viewed as a stage for the depiction of the human figure.
To achieve this phenomenal realism, many of the artists built outdoor glass studios (much like a greenhouse) in which they posed their models and produced detailed studies of them in a controlled rustic setting. In many cases these studies were then taken into the studio where the large paintings were created.
Well, all this photographic realism eventually led to their demise. Art critics began to criticize their work as being too factual, too scientific...just too photographic.
Jules-Alexis Muenier, Tramps - 58"x 56" - 1896
Some modernists, those that primarily supported the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements attacked them as being too literal and out of step with the new direction.
Emile Claus, A Meeting on the Bridge - 28"x 38"
They were condemned for lacking courage and initiative. Some even called their work regressive..."obstacles to innovation".
As a result of all this criticism, some of the painters began to disguise their working methods, wanting to leave the impression that their work was in fact created without photographic aids. Things just never change do they?
Gari Melchers, The Sermon - 63"x 87" - 1886
Well, the move toward more and more "modern" won out. Sound training eventually became a hinderance if one wanted to be free to express themselves. This led to almost a century of various "isms", many of them worthless.
Anders Zorn, The Mora Fair - 52"x 66" - 1892
Well today, things are changing. Many ateliers are springing up that are returning to the academic training of the French academies. Young students are hungry to learn long established methods of the masters. Realism is finally on the upswing. The young generation coming up is already producing some incredible work.
Two artists that seem to be influenced by the Naturalists are: Jeremy Lipking and Joseph Todorovitch. Four art academies doing a fine job training future artists are: Angel Academy of Art, Studio Incamminati, The Florence Academy, and The Water Street Atelier.
Source for article: Beyond Impressionism, the Naturalist Impulse, Gabriel Weisberg - Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1992; Photos: Google Images, Art Renewal Center
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