If you didn’t happen to be in Amsterdam or Helsinki early last year, when the exhibition “Illusions of Reality: Naturalist Painting, Photography, Theater, and Cinema, 1875–1918” was on view at theVan Gogh Museum and the Ateneum Art Museum, then a mournful pleasure awaits you. The catalogue for this exhibition, a beautiful book with several outstanding essays and fifty pages of full-color plates, is a sad reminder, to those of us who didn’t see the show, that now we never will. But it is worth poring over, however belatedly. Alongside acknowledged masterpieces of the late nineteenth century by Pascale-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret and Jules Bastien-Lepage, the catalogue offers a good look at far less familiar works by such painters as Floris Verster, István Csók and Fernand Pelez, to name a few. Stumbling across the book recently in a bookstore, I found it hard to put down.
The main contributor to the essays is Gabriel P. Weisberg, whose excellent 1992 book Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse (Harry N. Abrams) has become a standard bearer in the relatively small number of publications on Naturalism as a movement. Weisberg’s work here overlaps somewhat with his earlier writing, but only because, nearly twenty years after that first book was published, it is evidently still necessary to describe and define Naturalism (as opposed to, say, Impressionism) before exploring it with a more nuanced historical view. So Weisberg and his colleagues begin with a discussion of the novelist Émile Zola, who attempted to define Naturalism as a style of scientific observation, an experiment in which the novelist places characters in a given environment and then simply waits to see how that environment will affect them. The trick of course is that the novelist is the one controlling the environment, as well. Naturalist painting picks up on this overall sense of large, outside forces at work on individuals, focusing in particular on the ever-increasing industrialization of Europe in the nineteenth century. Weisberg and his collaborators—Edwin Becker, Maartje de Jaan, David Jackson, Willa Z. Silverman and Jean-Francois Rauzier—show how the painters featured here were concerned not only with the plight of industrial laborers and the urban poor, but also with the corresponding disappearance of rural beauties and old ways of life. Elaborating on this, they offer an absorbing account of how the Naturalist impulse in novels and paintings expanded to include theater, photography and early film: “remembered images” from famous stories, photographs, and paintings “resurfaced in both plays and films, thereby making them increasingly familiar to the general public.” In contrast to both academic painting and most of the avant-garde Aesthetic imagery of the time, this was art about and for “the masses.”
So, what did the masses look like? The catalogue features painting after painting of figures who are generally sad, anxious or angry, and often dark with drab clothing or the grime of their labor. Yet, though these canvases depict difficulty and hardship, they evoke an intellectual as much as an emotional response—a viewer’s sympathy mixes with an analytical urge to understand what is taking place, why it is taking place and, perhaps, what might be done about it. The dispassionate medical attitude in Zola’s suggestion that naturalism examines the relationship between individual and the environment plays out in these works as a tendency to a broad view, with multiple focal points; the paintings are for the most part very large (the people depicted are often near life-size), and even in reproduction take a long time to consider carefully. In Charles Sprague Pearce’s luminously painted Return of the Flock, (c. 1885–90), for example, the lonely girl in the foreground is part of a traditionally pastoral scene, but there is little prettiness or nostalgia here. The gray sky, weedy ground and relatively dirty-looking sheep surrounding her serve to make the landscape somewhat forbidding, and it is hard to imagine anything but a dull and difficult future for this young shepherdess. The vaguely Biblical title of the work only heightens a sense that there is something almost martyr-like about her. The little girl in Eero Järnefelt’s, 1893 Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood) inspires more immediate pity, with her direct stare and smoke-blackened face, but the two young figures have more in common, bound as they are to the hard and painful work of making their living from the land, than we might at first think. The book is full of opportunities to pair works like these two, and the scope of the essays and the range of countries from which the paintings are drawn demonstrates how vital and influential the Naturalist painters were (and are).
Ironically, many of these huge paintings, which were so often intended to urge the public and the government alike to improve labor conditions and help the destitute, proved difficult to sell: “The emphasis on ‘hardship’ in painting brought few materials rewards,” Weisberg writes, and painters such as Dagnan-Bouveret finally gave up on “themes that were either controversial or linked to issues that reflected the larger mass of society,” so that the less-famous paintings, especially, were gradually seen by fewer and fewer people. One wishes we could have at least remedied that now, and brought this exhibition to the United States Several American painters were included in the exhibition, including Thomas Eakins’s student Thomas Anshutz, whose painting The Ironworkers’ Noontime, of 1880, graces the catalogue cover. The show would surely have been well received here. But at least we have the book.