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Naturalism (lat. natura – “nature”, fr. naturalisme) is an art movement of the mid-19th century, which sought to convey the world and people in the most natural way. Its subjects and landscapes are connected to a specific locality and real-life characters. Naturalism became one of the main trends in 19th century painting and coupled with realism it led to the emergence of impressionism and contemporary art.
Naturalism rejected the conventions of the classical genre, imagined life as it is, without explicit political and social statements, without distortion or interpretation, in its cultural and socially-mediated reality. We can say that the art movement is opposed to classicism with the latter’s tendency for idealization and stylization.
The term “naturalism” was first used in 1672 by Italian critic Giovanni Pietro Bellori in regard to the works of Caravaggio and the artists from his circle, who represented in their works the truth of life on the contrary to the generally accepted canons of beauty and style. Much later, the term was made significant by the French writer Émile Zola, who defended the “meticulous truth of life” in a number of his theoretical works (The Experimental Novel (1880), The Naturalist Novelists (1881) and Naturalism in the Theatre (1881)). The term “naturalism” became popular and allowed to describe ex post the artistic trend which had been existing since the 1820s.
In a way, naturalism became a successor to the realistic movement, whose representatives depicted landscapes and scenes of everyday life of common people, as did the Englishman John Constable. This artist not only spent hours observing nature and its changes at different times of the day and year, but also rethought landscape painting working a lot in the open air. The original beauty of nature and the naturalism of Constable’s paintings shocked his contemporaries and turned the landscape from a low subgenre into an independent and outstanding genre.
The trends suggested by Constable were picked up and continued by several groups of artists around the world, including the Norwich School (East of England), the Hudson River School of New York State, from the 1830s – the Barbizon School, and then spread throughout Europe. Naturalist artists identified their works with specific places they knew thoroughly, often away from cities . The subjects of their paintings were very democratic, and this gave the wide audience an opportunity to enjoy beautiful views of the familiar places.
Photography surely had an impact on the development of naturalism – it enabled capturing reality in just a few minutes. However, nothing could compare with the art of an artist creating hypnotically realistic effects. Landscape became the most popular genre, and even with human figures depicted on canvas, the main emphasis was on the naturalness of the surrounding landscape and the grandeur of nature. Another trend in naturalism captured genre scenes of everyday life – here we should recall the works of Camille Corot and Jules Bastien-Lepage; the latter also left a bright mark in portraiture, introducing the principles of naturalism into a true image of human nature.
In Russia, naturalism was reflected in the last third of the 19th century in the paintings by the artists from the Society for Itinerary Art Exhibitions, which opposed academic art and followed the principles of critical realism and were socially oriented.