Naturalism in Art and Literature

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Naturalism, a term widely used in the nineteenth century, was employed by novelists, artists, and art critics as a synonym forrealism. But, in fact, naturalism was a much more complex term. The term derived from the theory of positivism developed by the French philosopher Auguste Comte (17981857). The roots of scientific naturalism, emerging from the eighteenth century and coming to fruition in the nineteenth century, considered knowledge as a pure science that was to be reinforced by a clear understanding of the laws of nature and an objective observation of facts. In the last half of the nineteenth century writers, primarily novelists, subscribed to this innovative positivist view of the world around them.

In the course of the nineteenth century the philosopher Hippolyte Taine applied scientific methods to the study of art and literature. From 1864 to 1884, as a professor at the influential École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Taine taught students that the character and development of visual culture were determined by two qualities: race and the environment in which art was created. Taine presented the foundation for an evolutionary approach toward human nature and the importance of family genes in determining the ways in which people reacted. Similarly, this author's advocacy of studying the locale or place in which an individual was brought up emphasized societal implications in shaping an individual. Taine's widely read book The Philosophy of Art conveyed his beliefs to a broad audience.

Taine's ideas also provided a scientific method for historians that allowed them to understand the past and even predict the future since it was based on immutable historic laws. His approach contributed a foundation upon which contemporary thinkers could build literary and artistic examples of works that were meant to reflect their own era through a factual reconstruction of the "spirit of the time." This need to be "of one's own time" affected writers and visual artists until the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

The Father of Naturalism

The best-known "proponent of naturalism" was the novelist and French art critic Émile Zola (18401902); he was one of the most passionate defenders of Taine's theories, putting them to use in his novels. Zola's foreword to his novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) became the fundamental manifesto of literary naturalism. He maintained and enlarged his ideas in his Experimental Novel (1880) and The Naturalist Novelists (1881), where he advocated that modern literature needed to be as accurate as possible in order to provide a record of "modern history." To Zola, literature could only be truly real if it examined life in a verifiable way, similar to a medical experiment or analysis, where humanity, as an organism, would be able to function only by following predetermined hereditary laws that were to be studied within a very precise social environment. As a careful note taker of the world in which he lived, Zola used the documents he compiled as necessary building blocks in the construction of his novels.

Zola's naturalism created no less a sensation than the earlier realism of Gustave Courbet when he showed his paintings at the Salon in Paris (18501851). Very quickly, and certainly by the early 1880s, if not before, literary (and eventually visual) naturalism became the most popular method of creativity throughout Europe. Much of this influence was due to the wide dissemination of literary texts through popular journals. The consistent discussion of Zola's theories by writers and painters in the public eye made it clear by the world's fairs of 1878 and 1889 that naturalism was everywhere; it had become an international phenomenon.

The Early Naturalist Painters

As an art critic, beginning in the 1860s, Zola was a very passionate and effective critic of contemporary art. He profoundly admired the work of the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (18481884), an artist who was seen at the time as one of the leading naturalist painters, if not the primary painter working in this vein. Many younger painters idolized Bastien-Lepage's work, especially after his early death from cancer. Zola, along with the art critic Albert Wolff, saw Bastien-Lepage as the inheritor of the tradition of Jean-François Millet (18141875) and Gustave Courbet (18191877). Zola, and to a slightly lesser degree Albert Wolff, affirmed Bastien-Lepage's superiority over the Impressionist painters active at the time, since Bastien-Lepage could, it was believed, factually recreate his impressions in a most organized way. Bastien-Lepage's canvases, such as his Hay Gatherers (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and Potato Harvesters (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), because of their sense of the momentary and their large-scale presence, created lively discussion. Critics, and other artists, believed the artist had originated a naturalist painting style that was photographic and environmentally specific. The painter used the landscapes of his native region, the Meuse, for his naturalist reconstructions of rural life.

Bastien-Lepage's work excited the imagination of painters beyond France; he was seen as a pivotal figure in the international naturalist movement. His death was viewed as cataclysmic for the visual arts, and he was assured a position of importance in the creation of a "new style." His canvases became models for emulation in Scandinavia, eastern Europe, England, and the United States, where his example demonstrated that naturalism was a viable and fertile mode of representation.

Using Bastien-Lepage as a touchstone, other painters, including P. A. J. Dagnan-Bouveret, created a heightened naturalism that relied extensively on the use of photography as a tool, an aide-mémoire, without revealing photography as a primary source. Photography became for visual artists what note taking was for the novelist; it allowed them to gather visual facts they could use later in their reconstructions of reality. A number of well-accepted painters created a compelling version of "virtual reality" that deeply engaged the general public, who saw, accurately recorded, elements from their environment and types from society that they knew well.

Another French painter, one linked briefly with the Impressionist movement, was Jean-François Raffaelli (18501924). In a series of mostly small compositions, he represented people from the lowest level of society in order to convey authenticity and ugliness. Raffaelli's ragpickers, wanderers, and social outcasts revealed that beauty and strength came from character, no matter where this was found. He helped shift the visual perspective from "ideal nudes" toward the examination of those whose life was unfortunate, similar to many of the types in Zola's novels. Raffaelli's vision of the world suggested that sadness and hopelessness were aspects of life experiences that a modern naturalist painter needed to understand. With Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte, painters with a strong naturalist streak in many of their works, the Impressionist canon was expanded to include themes drawn from urban life, thereby helping to fulfill the call from many art critics of the era that themes from modern life could be found everywhere. In his series of articles on realism published in the review of the same name, Edmond Duranty (18331880) foreshadowed Zola's ideas about the position of the artist, writer, or painter vis-à-vis nature. For Duranty, as for Zola, artists should be concerned with the truth, with an exacting study of nature. He called for the artist to portray the practical conditions of human life, the milieu in which people lived, in order to represent the social side of man and the influences that affected him.

Spreading Naturalism

As Zola's novels gained an international following, a large number of imitators appeared who helped promote the naturalist aesthetic in popular literature that was available to the masses. Writers such as Guy de Maupassant (18501893) based their stories on Zola's methodology. At the same time, Zola's best-known novels were turned into plays: Nana was one character who dominated the French stage in productions of L'assommoir from the 1880s onward; Zola's mining novel, Germinal, provided additional evidence of his influence when performed in popular theaters. During the 1890s, a series of printmakers furthered the appearance of visual naturalism in posters and lithographs published by the ever increasing socialist press. Théophile Steinlen, an avowed radical, saw that such types as the print "The Barge Man" provided an opportunity to comment on the implied threat found in disgruntled wanderers; other images, for the periodical Gil Blas, stressed that those who were out of work and destitute could be found everywhere. The plight of the poor became a naturalist battle cry that many artists, in varied artistic media, answered. By using these themes, writers and visual artists enlarged the social dimension of the naturalist movement, which had first brought these types to the fore.

But it was the haunting impact of the environment and of the social milieu on life that remained one of the most trenchant aspects of the naturalist heritage after the turn of the century. In America, in the novels of Theodore Dreiser (18711945) or Frank Norris (18701902), the influence of Zola's brand of naturalism was paramount. In Vandover and the Brute or in the cataclysmic McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, Norris's characters were flawed, often overwrought, brutes whose nature was determined by genetic and environmental factors. Their pursuit of money underscored uncontrollable drives; naturalism was now focusing on obsessive traits. Significantly, Norris's novel McTeague led to another level of naturalist appeal: the influence on early cinema. When Erich von Stroheim completed his extremely long film Greed, based directly on McTeague, in 1924, he revealed that the naturalist aesthetic could be transferred to another medium, where it was used as a means of revealing fatal character traits that cast light on the lives of troubled people. In effect, Zola's idea of making art understandable for the masses by creating a detailed narrative had come full circle with the motion picture.

See also Aesthetics: Europe and the Americas ; Impressionism ; Literary History ; Realism ; Symbolism .


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Naturalism in Art and Literature

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