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Naturalism in Art and Literature

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 (1848–1884), 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 (1814–1875) and Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). 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 (1850–1924). 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 (1833–1880) 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.

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