Painting Reality: 3 Spread

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Portrait of the Swedish Painter Karl Nordström (1882), oil on canvas, 61 x 46.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Naturalism may have emerged in France, thanks at least in part to the Third Republic, but it rapidly became established internationally. This was largely due to Paris, in particular, and France more generally being the focal point of western painting at the time.

Literary Naturalism had spread with the translation of the writings of Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) the critic and historian, Claude Bernard (1813-1878) the physiologist, and the Rougon-Macquart novels of Émile Zola (1840-1902). These were accessible in all the major European languages by 1880, and attracted an intellectual following across North America and Europe.

Naturalism in painting was largely disseminated at the Paris Salon. In spite of the absence of the Impressionists, this remained the single event each year which drew artists, critics, and huge numbers of ‘the public’ to view, compare and discuss contemporary works of art. In the first article in this series, I showed how Naturalism reached critical mass at the Salon of 1883. In terms of its international spread, the previous year was even more important.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), The Wood Gatherer (Father Jacques) (1881), oil on canvas, 199 x 181 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI. Wikimedia Commons.

Bastien-Lepage’s The Wood Gatherer (Father Jacques) (1881) was one of the most discussed paintings of that Salon, although some critics weren’t impressed by it.

Its high horizon and woodland break the thin slice of sky into fine fragments. The detailed foreground includes both of the figures, who are diametric opposites – an old man bent with his load of firewood, who at any moment could keel over and die, and a young child (probably a girl) who runs free among the wild flowers. The perception of depth is enhanced by the recession of tree forms, although here the space is enclosed rather than open.

There was at that time a strong Nordic school of painting in France, including Christian Skredsvig (friend of Edvard Munch), Nicolai Ulfsten, Carl Larsson, Karl Nordstrôm, Hans Heyerdahl, Erik Werenskiold, and Christian Krohg.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Port Side! (1879), oil on canvas, 99 x 70 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. The Athenaeum.

Krohg’s Port Side! (1879) was his one and only painting ever to be exhibited at the Salon. He started this when he was still in Berlin, and completed it when at Skagen in Denmark in the summer of 1879. It didn’t set the Salon of 1882 alight, but was favourably received by some of the critics.

Hans Heyerdahl (1857–1913), The Dying Child (1881), oil on canvas, 59.5 x 70 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Heyerdahl’s The Dying Child (1881) was so lauded that it was bought from the Salon for the French nation. Although executed in an older, darker style this motif became popular with Nordic painters including Edvard Munch, and is one of those typical of Naturalism.

Erik Werenskiold (1855–1938), Peasant Burial (1885), oil on canvas, 102.5 x 150.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

A little later, Erik Werenskiold painted this rural Norwegian response to Courbet’s Burial at Ornans, in his Peasant Burial of 1885.

Henri Gervex (1852–1929), The Quai de la Villette, Paris (1882), oil, dimensions not known, Palais des beaux-arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the surprise success of the Salon in 1882 was Henri Gervex’s Bassin de la Villette, which I have been unable to locate as a usable image. This sequel to it was painted that same year and shares the theme of hard, dirty labour. Gervex was elevated to the Legion of Honour that year on the strength of those works.

Naturalism developed this theme of people at work as no other art movement before or since.

Adolph von Menzel (1815–1905), The Iron Rolling Mill (1875), oil on canvas, 158 x 254 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t novel by any means: Adolph von Menzel’s The Iron Rolling Mill from 1875 is one of many paintings from Germany and beyond which had started to document heavy industry of the nineteenth century. But during the mid-1880s, this became a major theme of Naturalism.

Charles Frederic Ulrich (1858–1908), The Glass Blowers (1883), oil on canvas, 47.8 × 58.4 cm, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico. Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Frederic Ulrich was born in New York City in 1858, and had travelled to Europe to attend the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany, as did so many other American painters, including William Merritt Chase, of course. Many of his surviving works show different workplaces across Europe: in The Glass Blowers (1883) the work is more delicate: blowing and preparing glass domes, perhaps for use as covers of watches and clocks.

Joan Planella y Rodríguez (1849–1910), The Little Weaver (1882-89), oil on canvas, 67 x 55 cm, Museu d’Història de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Joan Planella was a Catalan painter who studied in Italy rather than France. The Little Weaver (1882-89) shown here is a replica of the original, which he had completed in 1882. It shows a young girl working at a large and complex loom in Catalonia, as a man lurks in the background, keeping a watch over her.

Another distinctive motif in Naturalist painting is the figure looking from a balcony or full-height window over a sunlit cityscape. This has its origins in German Romantic art, including Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at the Window of 1822. However, it was Gustave Caillebotte who recast and modernised it for his painting of his brother René, Young Man at His Window, in 1875.

Gustave Caillebotte, Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (1880), oil on canvas, 116.5 x 89.5 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Gustave Caillebotte, Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (1880), oil on canvas, 116.5 x 89.5 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

As far as I know, Caillebotte’s 1875 original was only shown at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876, but his later Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (1880) was exhibited at the Salon in 1882, and may have been seen earlier by some of the Nordic painters in Paris.

Hans Heyerdahl (1857–1913), At the Window (1881), oil on panel, 46 x 37 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Heyerdahl responded with his very sketchy At the Window in 1881 (above), and the following year Christian Krohg painted his Portrait of the Swedish Painter Karl Nordström (below) using the same artistic device. Krohg didn’t paint this in Paris, but as he neared the end of his time in France in the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, during the Spring of 1882.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Portrait of the Swedish Painter Karl Nordström (1882), oil on canvas, 61 x 46.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

The spread of Impressionism across Europe and North America appears to have been relatively slow: the poorly-attended first Impressionist Exhibition of 1874 inspired modest growth through the latter years of that decade and through the next. Because Naturalism reached many more artists, critics, and viewers at the Salon, its spread was more rapid and general. It set painting in Europe and North America on fire for the rest of the century.

In the next article in this series, I will look at the relationships between Naturalist art and the state.