How Does Contemporary Aesthetics Tolerate Naturalism in Art ?

June 6, 2016

Even though in most cases the term naturalism art relates to painting, it actually dates back to c. 500 BCE and the naturalist sculpture of the great Greece - after all, this is indeed one of the historically most represented concepts in arts. We all know them as almost impeccable replicas of the human body - or at least the idea of a perfect one - and as the first forms of translating nature into an artwork. It was a break-away from the non-figurative painting that dominated in civilisations up until that point, like the ones in Egypt or the Byzantine Empire, but it wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance and the early Baroque that naturalism art got a significant push towards becoming an independent genre. Through the essential works of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Albrecht Durer and Caravaggio, and later with Dutch masters, Romanticism and, finally, Realism and even Impressionism, naturalism art got its place on the table, and even today we can find its traces among contemporary artists. So what exactly is it?

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Left: Albrecht Durer - A Young Hare, 1502 / Right: Albrecht Dürer - The Large Piece of Turf, 1503

How do we Define Naturalism in Art ?

Caught between the strong influence of the above mentioned great masters and the overly sentimentalised tendencies of Romanticism, naturalism strived to get the most out of reality and the artist’s observation of it. As its own title suggests, it focused on nature, but also people living in it, looking to depict the objects in their most natural state and setting. It is all about portraying things as they are, to the tiniest detail and aspect, leaving no space for any interpretation or wrongful representation. Of course, as such naturalism art did not leave much creative choice to its artists, thus a pinch of subjectivity and particular aesthetics can be found in many of these artworks; although they’re all still religiously following the quest for authenticity, as imposed by the French writer Emile Zola and widely adopted in the European literature of the early 19th century. In a nutshell, naturalism art - much like photography, at around that same time - wanted to document the people and landscapes around just the way it is, and when it comes to painting, the naturalists were the ones in charge of that.

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John Constable - Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, via Sotheby's New York

Naturalism vs Realism

Many times regarded as one and the same, naturalism and realism are actually slightly different, if anything for the topics they depict and the painting methods they use. Some consider naturalism to be a sub-genre of realism, which is perhaps quite fair to say. Nevertheless, while realist painters dedicated much more of their time to “what” or “who” they are painting, the naturalists emphasised the process, the way their reality is painted. Even when portraying people, the artworks of naturalism did not particularly mind their actions, which was absolutely the case with realistic canvases: their urge to portray society and its behaviours went as far as becoming a political weapon even, in some cases such as socialist and social realism, in the first half of the 20th century. Naturally, landscape was still the most common theme, but this form of art also found its place among the figurative artists, through portraits and genre-paintings of people, created in a number of schools spread throughout European countries like France, Holland, Scotland and Ireland, but also further to Russia, the United States and Australia.

Video - The Difference Between Realism & Naturalism

In Contemporary Practice

With the advent of the 20th century and the new avant-garde movements, many of which wanted nothing to do with realism or, for that matter, naturalism, these two genres saw a decline in interest, mostly in favour of conceptual and abstract art. Still, as long as there’s reality and nature, there will be realism and naturalism art, and today we can talk about contemporary artists who still practice it. However, a number of them have actually expanded the concepts by leaning towards a more abstract representation, inviting the viewers to look beyond the surface of the natural world. And so, we have quite abstract landscapes of Patricia Beggings, the Impressionism-inspired animal portraits of Mary Roberson or Ewoud De Groot’s dreamy ones, and the reasonably realistic sculptures by Steve Kestrel. With this in mind, it is perhaps safe to say that the only thing left of naturalism today is the idea of visualising nature, in whichever medium, approach or style - so maybe there are many more Naturalists working out there than we think.


Editors’ Tip: Art of the Actual: Naturalism and Style in Early Third Republic France, 1880-1900

Art of the Actual examines the use of naturalism in the 19th-century French Republic, which emerged in 1870, and by 1880 had developed a coherent republican ideology. The regime pursued secular policies and emphasized its commitment to science and technology. Naturalism was an ideal aesthetic match for the republican ideology; it emphasized that art should be drawn from the everyday world, that all subjects were worthy of treatment, and that there should be flexibility in representation to allow for different voices. By illuminating the role of naturalism in a broad range of imagery in late 19th-century France, author Richard Thomson provides a new interpretation of the art of the period.

Featured images in slider: Ivan Shishkin - Oak Grove, 1887; Théodore Rousseau - Mare au Crépuscule, c. 1850; Patricia Beggings - Patagonia Pool II, 2014; Ewoud De Groot - Eider Reflections, 2014. All images used for illustrative purposes only.