Painting Reality: 9 Summary and Index

Jules B-L, The Little Chimneysweep (Damvillers) (1883), oil on canvas, 102 x 116 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last year, I have been gradually amassing articles here as I have been studying Naturalist painting in the late nineteenth century. This is the final article in a series of nine which brings together a summary, indexed against the previous eight articles in the series, links to each of the articles about themes in Naturalist painting, an alphabetical list of artists covered in separate articles, and a list of recommended books.

I will try to keep this article updated, so that you can use it as a reference.

Naturalist painting is the visual art sibling of literary Naturalism, typified by the Rougon-Macquart novels of Émile Zola.

1 Emergence (1883)

It emerged gradually from ‘social realist’ painting, particularly that of rural deprivation, notably the work of Jean-François Millet, during the 1860s and 70s.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), Love in the Village (1882), oil on canvas, 194 × 180 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Some common features of these paintings are:

  • They tend to show ordinary people, rather than nobility, gods, or heroes,
  • who are going about their normal daily activities,
  • in their normal surroundings.
  • They are painted with the impression of objectivity,
  • rather than overt sentiment.
  • Painting style is a neutral realism, showing such detail as is necessary for their purpose,
  • sometimes being ‘photographic’ in quality.

Its dominant influence, until his premature death in 1884, was Jules Bastien-Lepage.

2 Origins

Naturalism ultimately originated in genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, together with the realism of Gustave Courbet in the mid nineteenth century. It was Millet who established its starting point in rural poverty, in his paintings during the 1850s. Other more proximate influences include Édouard Manet, and it was Léon Lhermitte who painted the first distinctively Naturalist works around 1880.

Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844–1925), The Harvesters’ Pay (1882), oil on canvas, 215 x 272 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

3 Spread

Naturalism may have developed in France, thanks in part to the Third Republic which formed in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but it soon spread through much of Europe. Early adopters were artists from Nordic countries, many of whom worked in France at the time.

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

Among the most active of the Nordic artists, who was to remain a Naturalist until his death in 1925, was the Norwegian painter and writer Christian Krohg. Erik Werenskiold’s Naturalist response to Courbet’s Burial at Ornans is another example from the height of the movement in 1885.

4 Art and the State

Quite unlike Impressionism, at that time, Naturalism was enthusiastically supported by the Third Republic, as described so well by Richard Thomson (see reference below). Although many paintings recorded the achievements of the state, some artists drove home social messages which were more critical instead.

Robert Koehler (1850–1917), The Strike in the Region of Charleroi (1886), oil on canvas, 181.6 × 275.6 cm, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

These included coverage by Robert Koehler of the industrial unrest in Belgium, social deprivation in Paris depicted by Fernand Pelez, and campaigns by Christian Krohg against prostitution in Oslo. Many Naturalist paintings proved controversial, and some were purchased by the state so that they could be hidden away from public view in provincial museums.

5 Growth of the city

A particularly popular theme in Naturalist painting was urban poverty and other social ills which worsened with the rapid growth of cities and their supporting industries.

Erik Henningsen (1855–1930), Evicted (1892), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

This was as true in the capitals of the Nordic countries (above) as in the streets of Paris (below).

Fernand Pelez (1848-1913), Homeless (1883), oil on canvas, 77.5 x 136 cm, location not known. Image by Bastenbas, via Wikimedia Commons.

For a couple of decades, painting had acquired new social and political roles.

6 Science and technology

Naturalist painters were as enthralled by the rapid developments in science and technology, as were authors like Zola.

Louis Muraton (1850–1919), The Photographer (before 1901), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

They even celebrated the technology brought with the development of photography, as seen in Louis Muraton’s painting of a photographer developing his plates in a dark room.

André Brouillet (1857–1914), A Clinical Lesson at The Salpêtrière Hospital (1887), oil, 290 x 430 cm, Paris Descartes University, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Others recorded the great advances in medicine and its formal teaching.

7 Decline

After 1895, there was a rapid movement away from Naturalism. Many of its greatest exponents were old, or had already died, and those who were still active found other motifs and styles.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Seamstress’s Christmas Eve (1921), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, Tromsø, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Among the few who continued to paint Naturalist works were Léon Lhermitte in France, and Christian Krohg in Norway. Painting was changing rapidly, and by the early twentieth century realism was left to photography.

8 Outcome

There is little evidence that Naturalism changed society, although in the Nordic countries it was an influential element in social and political change, with the advent of social democratic movements.

A little realist or Naturalist painting survived during the twentieth century, when many were making intensely introspective works which didn’t attempt to depict scenes from the real world. It did influence the altered realities depicted often near-photographically by Surrealists.

Thomas Calloway “Tom” Lea III (1907-2001), The 2000 Yard Stare (1944), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 71.1 cm, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, VA. By US Army, Tom Lea, via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps Naturalism’s greatest influence was not in painting, but in the new art of photography.


Down and out: Vagrants
Down and Out: Homeless
The drowned man
Utonula, the drowned woman
By the Sweat of their Brow – people at work 1
By the Sweat of their Brow – people at work 2
Woman Sewing: By hand 1
Woman Sewing: By hand 2
Woman Sewing: Slave to the sewing machine
The Rise of the Clinic: 1, family medicine
The Rise of the Clinic: 2, hospitals
Anatomy lessons, autopsies, and surgery: they’re different
In Hospital: 2, Light
Painting the Class: schools from 1860 to 1907
The Art of the Law: paintings of courts 1, to 1903
The Art of the Law: paintings of courts 2, Forain and court artists
All Out! Paintings of strikes
The Franco-Prussian War: Depicting defeat
The Franco-Prussian War: Destruction of Paris
The Franco-Prussian War: Aftermath
The Murder of Marat: Painting politics and perception
The Tables Turned: Painters paint photographers
Faites vos jeux: gambling on canvas 2, after 1850
Fly Like a God: Paintings of flight before Blériot
Fire, Fire 1: Brandjes and Napoleon
Fire, Fire 2: London and Frederiksborg Castle are burning
Umbrellas: Stop the rain
Umbrellas: Stop the sun

Individual Artists

Christian Krohg
1 – beginnings
2 – the fatigued and the fallen
3 – family and famine
4 – sailors and models

HA Brendekilde and LA Ring
HA Brendekilde 1883-1889
LA Ring 1882-1889
HA Brendekilde 1889-1894
LA Ring 1890-1894
HA Brendekilde 1895-1906
LA Ring 1895-1906
HA Brendekilde 1906-1914
LA Ring 1906-1914
HA Brendekilde 1915-1942
LA Ring 1915-1933
Moments of Genius

Jules Bastien-Lepage: Avatar of Naturalism, 1
Jules Bastien-Lepage: Avatar of Naturalism, 2
George Breitner
Amsterdam for Real: Paintings of George Breitner 1
Amsterdam for Real: Paintings of George Breitner 2
Eugène Buland
A Civic Starkness: Paintings of Eugène Buland
Alexandre Cabanel and pupils
Alexandre Cabanel and his pupils: the master
Alexandre Cabanel and his pupils: the pupils
Gustave Caillebotte
The Naturalism of Gustave Caillebotte 1
The Naturalism of Gustave Caillebotte 2
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
Painting and Photography: the work of Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret 1
Painting and Photography: the work of Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret 2
Édouard Debat-Ponsan
The painted politics of Édouard Debat-Ponsan
Albin Egger-Lienz
Albin Egger-Lienz: early Naturalism, 1887-1903
Albin Egger-Lienz: Work and War, 1904-1926
Émile Friant
The Last Naturalist: Émile Friant, 1
The Last Naturalist: Émile Friant, 2
Antonino Gandolfo
Down and Out in Catania: paintings of Antonino Gandolfo
Jean Geoffroy: the world of the child
Surgery, sinners, and soirées: the paintings of Henri Gervex
Jean Geoffroy
Erik Henningsen: the thirsty man
Aksel Johannessen
Aksel Johannessen’s street women and drunkards, 1
Aksel Johannessen’s street women and drunkards, 2
Henry Lerolle
The Organ Rehearsal: The paintings, friends, and collection of Henry Lerolle
Léon Lhermitte
Gleaners, Markets and Scientists: Paintings of Léon Lhermitte 1
Gleaners, Markets and Scientists: Paintings of Léon Lhermitte 2
Bruno Liljefors
No Greater Naturalist: Paintings of Bruno Liljefors, 1
No Greater Naturalist: Paintings of Bruno Liljefors, 2
Jules-Alexis Muenier
The Real Jules-Alexis Muenier: 1 Paintings
The Real Jules-Alexis Muenier: 2 Painting from photographs
Alberto Pasini
Alberto Pasini’s Oriental World, 1
Alberto Pasini’s Oriental World, 2
Fernand Pelez
Street Urchins: Paintings of Fernand Pelez
Alfred Roll
Strikes, Politics, and Zola’s ‘Germinal’: Paintings of Alfred Roll
Frits Thaulow
Ripples in Reality: The Landscape Paintings of Frits Thaulow, 1
Ripples in Reality: The Landscape Paintings of Frits Thaulow, 2
Fritz von Uhde
A German Naturalist? Fritz von Uhde 1
A German Naturalist? Fritz von Uhde 2
Berthold Woltze
Berthold Woltze and his problem pictures

Recommended Books

Øystein Sjåstad (2017) Christian Krogh’s Naturalism, U Washington Press. ISBN 978 0 295 74206 9.
Richard Thomson (2010) Art of the Actual, Naturalism and Style in Early Third Republic France, 1880-1900, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 17988 0.
Gabriel P Weisberg (1992) Beyond Impressionism, The Naturalist Impulse in European Art 1860-1905, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0500 23643 7.
Gabriel P Weisberg et al. (2010) Illusions of Reality, Naturalist Painting, Photography, Theatre and Cinema, 1875-1918, Van Gogh Museum et al. ISBN 978 90 6153 941 4.