As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Naturalist painting fell from favour. By the opening years of the new century, it was all but dead, and the few remaining Naturalists were shunned and scorned for not moving with the times. This article looks at what happened, and why works which were all the rage at the Salon in the 1880s fell from grace.
One important factor was the Salon itself. Although not termed a secession in the way that Berlin, Munich and Vienna experienced, in 1890-91 the Paris Salon split into two, with the new Salon du Champ de Mars competing with the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français, which had been pre-eminent. In 1903, this split again with the Salon d’Automne. Although these provided much better opportunities for new artists and movements, they are likely to have weakened their more general appeal.
Other movements, Impressionism in particular, had become more prominent. Although some argue that Impressionism was a form of Naturalism, or closely related, its popular themes and more painterly style were contrasting.
Those looking for objective accounts of contemporary society were turning increasingly to photography, which quickly grew the (entirely unfounded) reputation for absolute fidelity. Just as Naturalism had exploited our tendency to believe images which appear most real and ‘true to life’, so the photographer became a trusted reporter.
By the end of the century, many of those who had been in the vanguard of Naturalism were growing old, or had already died. The very early deaths of Jules Bastien-Lepage and his brilliant young protégé Marie Bashkirtseff in 1884 had been major losses.
Those who survived seemed to come out of the other side of Naturalism, and paint for different viewers and markets.
In Denmark, LA Ring still painted his Naturalist masterpiece of Father Coming Home in 1896, but few of his later paintings depicted such rural poverty.
The following year, At the French Windows. The Artist’s Wife appealed much more to the aesthetics of the wealthier and increasingly urban classes. Although a superb painting, it marked his departure from tackling social issues in the Danish countryside, and those of its undervalued skilled workers.
His friend Hans Andersen Brendekilde switched at the same time. Here’s his Melting Snow from 1895 showing the harsh reality of rural deprivation.
The following year, Brendekilde painted the lush sunshine of Spring. A Young Couple in a Rowing Boat on Odense Å, which shows a totally different world.
In France, the younger Émile Friant had painted The Frugal Meal in 1894, showing a poor family with four daughters sitting down to a meal consisting only of a bowl piled high with potatoes.
The following year came Friant’s The Small Boat, an idealistic view of a young couple dressed in immaculate whites sailing below cliffs, with a dreamlike softness to the sails.
By now one of the senior Naturalists, Léon Lhermitte completed Les Halles in 1895, with its links to Émile Zola’s Naturalist novel Le Ventre de Paris (1873).
Lhermitte never really abandoned Naturalism, which still lives in his Peasant Woman Resting from 1903. This woman’s distant and forlorn look could easily be a reflection on his earlier success.
José Uría y Uría’s After a Strike from 1895 is an exceptional work for its time, tackling issues of strikes and their violent consequences. It is also the last of Uría’s paintings which I am able to locate, although he was only 34, and lived for another 42 years.
Fernand Pelez, who had painted the poor and homeless so vividly, struggled to retain any interest in his work.
Pelez painted six different versions of The Little Lemon Vendor between about 1895-97, none of which was shown in a Salon, despite its compelling imagery. He became a recluse, and abandoned painting.
Another of the Nordic Naturalists, Christian Krohg, was more reluctant to abandon the cause, either of painting or his social campaigning through art.
In 1895, Krohg painted one of his more enigmatic works, but a throwback to his social narratives: Eyewitnesses. Set among fisher folk similar to those of the remote community of Skagen of his early career, one reading of this ‘problem picture’ is that the men have brought news of the loss at sea of the woman’s husband, an event of which they were eyewitnesses.
Krohg also returned to his major theme of the fallen woman and prostitution. In 1917, he produced a new compositional sketch for his famous Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room which he felt addressed the earlier painting’s theatricality.
As late as 1921, he painted Seamstress’s Christmas Eve, which revisits his longstanding theme of young country women coming to the city to sew, falling into debt, and ending up as prostitutes.
The last image on Naturalism should also come from Krohg, who just a year or so before his death in 1925 shows himself asleep in a chair under a pendulum clock, the time in its title being Five to Twelve.
By then, painting had turned in on itself and lost most of its public in a orgy of Cubism, Fauvism, and many other impenetrable forms of modernism. Popular images were photographs, which could never lie.