The height of Naturalist painting, between about 1880-1910, coincided with a period of prodigious scientific and technological advance. In almost every field touched by these, major changes transformed people’s lives, from fast high-speed travel by train and new industrial processes to general anaesthesia for surgery.
Although Naturalism had originated in the countryside among the rural poor, it soon came to depict changing times in science. One of the more prominent painters of science and scientists was Léon Lhermitte, now known almost entirely for his rural paintings.
Claude Bernard (1813-1878) was a pioneering physiologist whose writings were of great influence to Naturalists, including Émile Zola. Following Bernard’s death, the Sorbonne (where he had taught) commissioned Lhermitte to paint his portrait in 1886. This is a faithful anonymous copy of Claude Bernard and His Pupils, which was exhibited at the Salon in 1889.
Bernard stressed the importance of not just observational science, but the experimental too, which inspired Naturalist writers to pursue what they saw as an experimental approach. Zola watched people in life, filling notebooks with those observations. He then set characters up in the scenario for a novel, and they behaved according to his observations. He then documented this imaginary experiment, which became his next novel.
Lhermitte’s painting shows Bernard in the midst of performing an experiment on a rabbit, his students discussing its results, and one writing the experimental observations in the laboratory daybook.
Lhermitte’s painting of The Chemist Henri-Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville, Lesson on Aluminium from the following year, was also commissioned by the Sorbonne in Paris; I apologise for the small size of this image.
Henri-Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville (1818-1881) was responsible for many significant discoveries in chemistry, the most important of which was a method for the industrial manufacture of aluminium. He is shown here surrounded by objects made from this new material, which quickly came to transform manufacturing, and to invade every home.
Several Naturalist painters were commissioned to paint murals depicting scientific events for universities. Among them is Erik Henningsen’s The Nordic Natural Science Research Meeting 14 July 1847, completed in 1895 for the Aula of the University of Copenhagen. Presiding over this scientific meeting was the great Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted, who was nearly seventy at the time.
New more technical industries grew apace. In Charles Frederic Ulrich’s The Glass Blowers from 1883, their work is delicate: blowing and preparing glass domes, probably for covers of watches and clocks.
Ulrich also painted a young apprentice drinking during a moment’s pause in his work in The Village Printing Shop, Haarlem (1884). In the background is a large and relatively modern printing press.
Another Naturalist artist, Jean-Eugène Buland in his Un Patron, or The Apprentice’s Lesson from 1888 shows a young boy being trained to make a cogwheel. This was part of the French industrial recovery following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
Even traditional trades such as that of the seamstress had to embrace the advance of technology. In Wenzel Tornøe’s painting of a Seamstress, Whit Sunday Morning from 1882, the poor woman has fallen asleep by her sewing machine, after she has been frantically making garments to be worn at the traditional Danish festivities of Pentecost (Whitsun).
The subject of Louis Muraton’s The Photographer, painted before 1901, is rocking a glass plate in a bath of developer, in his improvised darkroom, another sign of the times.
Railways revolutionised transport, and the ability to travel from Paris to the Midi at high speed changed the history of painting. Trains were painted by the Impressionists too, and their interiors became increasingly used as the settings for Naturalist paintings.
Berthold Woltze’s Der lästige Kavalier, or The Annoying Bloke, from 1874 is an early ‘problem picture’ set in a railway carriage.
By the early twentieth century, another new mode of travel was being developed, that of flight. Émile Friant’s extraordinary Journey to Infinity from 1899 shows a balloon soaring high above a bank of grey clouds (or possibly a rugged mountain ridge) containing the forms of five nude women, one of them apparently performing a handstand. I suspect that Friant painted this for the pioneer woman aviator Marie Marvingt (1875-1963). Friant himself co-founded the first aviation club in Nancy.
This period saw the reinvention of hospitals too. Many major innovations in clinical procedures and care were introduced, and recorded in Naturalist paintings.
In André Brouillet’s A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière Hospital (1887), an eminent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot is demonstrating how he could hypnotise Marie “Blanche” Wittman, the ‘Queen of Hysterics’, into suffering hysterical collapse. Charcot and Wittman were a renowned partnership in this ‘act’, who performed in front of Sigmund Freud when he visited the hospital.
In the USA, Thomas Eakins painted the retiring professor of surgery, Dr. David Hayes Agnew, at work in the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The patient is unconscious thanks to a volatile liquid general anaesthetic administered via a mask. Bright surgical lighting puts six figures literally in the limelight, including that of Agnew, who is holding a scalpel at the left.
Robert C. Hinckley’s Ether Day, or The First Operation with Ether, painted some time between 1882-93, recreates the scene on 16 October 1846 in what is now known as the Ether Dome in the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Here John Collins Warren is removing a tumour from the neck of a local printer, Edward G Abbott, who was anaesthetised using ether – its first recorded use for a general surgical procedure; I apologise for the poor quality of this image.
Finally, Anna Sahlstén’s Surgery in Hospital from about 1893 shows the dazzling whiteness of the modern hospital, with a smart professional nurse caring for a child patient in the background. On the wall is a large radiator for the hospital’s modern heating system, which replaced the old stoves seen in so many earlier images of hospital wards.
In the next article in this series, I will look at the later years of Naturalist painting, at the end of the nineteenth century and beyond.