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Thomas Anshutz, The ironworkers noontime, 1880, Fine Arts Museums of San Fransisco, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd




At the end of the 19th century the work of numerous artists in Europe and America displayed striking similarities. These paintings were faithful representations of the visible world that highlighted contemporary social issues and often relied on photographs to more closely approximate reality. Although these artists were extremely popular in their lifetime, they were later forgotten. Nowadays they are counted as members of a movement called Naturalism. The general public in Western Europe became acquainted with naturalist art primarily through the Salon exhibitions in Paris. However, its appeal declined markedly in the course of the years. Artists of avant-garde movements such as Impressionism are much more famous now than the Academic artists who were so greatly admired in the 19th century. This teachers manual examines Naturalism from various angles. Not only are examples of Naturalist painting described, but also of literature, photography and cinema. In addition, various themes that occur in naturalist painting are discussed. The subject of Naturalism is highly suitable for students with a study focus on culture, society, history and literature. Students will gain knowledge and skills for courses on social studies, art, (art) history and literature.

ViNCENT VaN GOGh aNd NaTuraliSm

Vincent van Gogh was familiar with Naturalism, both in painting and literature, and actually wrote about it to his brother Theo. The excerpt below reveals that he considered Naturalism a movement that did not solely render reality, but added something to it. For Van Gogh the writings of the French naturalist author mile Zola also had a romantic feel because of the creative liberties he took:
Romance and romanticism are our era, and one must have imagination, sentiment in painting. HAPPILY, realism and naturalism are not free of them. Zola creates, but doesnt hold a mirror up to things, creates them amazingly, but creates, poetizes. Thats why its so good. So much for naturalism and realism, which are NONETHELESS related to romanticism.
Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, about 28 October 1885


muSEum ViSiT: praCTiCal iNfOrmaTiON

Information for booking a visit to the Van Gogh Museum can be found at Please note that reservations are limited to 40 students at a time. For questions about your reservation, you can reach us Monday through Thursday from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm by calling the Van Gogh Museums education number: +31 (0)20 570 52 46.

TraVElliNG by publiC TraNSpOrT


A visit to the Van Gogh Museum lasts about one hour. Payment can be made at the cash register on the day of your visit. For additional information, please consult the museums website:

Trams 2 and 5 run from and to Amsterdam Central Station. Tram 5 also runs from Station Zuid WTC. Alight at the Van Baerlestraat stop. Tram 3 runs from and to Muiderpoort Station. Alight at the Museumplein or Van Baerlestraat stop. Tram 12 runs between the Amstel Station and Sloterdijk Station. Alight at the Museumplein or Van Baerlestraat stop. Busses 145, 170 and 172 stop at the museum. Alight at the Museumplein stop.

muSEum rulES

When you visit the exhibition with your students, the Van Gogh Museum educator expects the group to be accompanied by at least one school supervisor. Teachers and adult helpers are responsible for their students at all times and must stay with their group.

ViSiTiNG addrESS
Van Gogh Museum Paulus Potterstraat 7 1071 CX Amsterdam

pOSTal addrESS
Van Gogh Museum P.O. Box 75366 1070 AJ Amsterdam

No touching the works of art. Coats, bags, backpacks and umbrellas must be checked at the cloakroom. The use of cameras and audio/video equipment is prohibited. Mobile phones and MP3 players must be switched off in the gallery. No eating, drinking or smoking. No running or screaming.

Mail your questions to You can also call the Department of Education and Visitor Services Monday through Thursday from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm, via the Van Gogh Museums education number: + 31 (0)20 570 52 46.

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The Van Gogh Museum is on Museumplein in Amsterdam. Ample paid parking is available in the Q Park Garage underneath Museumplein. Follow the signs P Museumplein.


Begin a lesson on Naturalism by outlining the characteristics of the era concerned, namely the end of the 19th century. Discuss important social developments, such as industrialisation and the ensuing urbanisation. You can also describe the position of artists at the time. In this context, the difference between Academic and avant-garde artists is relevant. For background information on Naturalism, see page 12 of this manual. Below are several suggestions for study options, questions and creative activities for lessons. The suggestions are easily adapted or expanded to suit your needs.


While nowadays most people have never heard of the movement called Naturalism, it was well known in the 19th century. Vincent van Gogh was also familiar with naturalist art. The following excerpt from a letter he wrote to his brother Theo evidences this:
Romance and romanticism are our era, and one must have imagination, sentiment in painting. HAPPILY, realism and naturalism are not free of them.
Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, about 28 October 1885

Read the excerpt from Vincent van Goghs letter. What does Vincent mean by the statement: Romance and romanticism are our era, and one must have imagination, sentiment in painting? Van Gogh is pleased that Realism and Naturalism are not devoid of Romanticism. What is Romanticism?

The following excerpt is from the same letter:

Zola creates, but doesnt hold a mirror up to things, creates them amazingly, but creates, poetizes. Thats why its so good. So much for naturalism and realism, which are NONETHELESS related to romanticism.
Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, about 28 October 1885

Van Gogh mentions Zola as an example. Who was he? Find information on Zola and his work. Explain what Van Gogh meant by his remark that Zolas work is not free from Romanticism?


In the 19th century it was important for artists to get their work exhibited at the Paris Salon, the (bi-) annual show held by the Acadmie des Beaux-Arts. Participation in these shows was determined by a very strict and conservative jury, which only selected works of art made in the Academic style. This meant that there was no room for innovative art. Naturalist paintings were displayed at the Salon and were critically acclaimed. The influence of the Salon diminished with the establishment of other venues where artists could exhibit their work. Still, the Salon exhibitions remained immensely popular: they afforded beginning artists the best opportunity of garnering critical notice. Because the works of art were hung above and below one another at the Salon, admittance was no guarantee that a painting was easy to see. The height at which a work was hung reflected the jurys opinion of its importance. If it hung at eye level, the artist was ensured greater recognition.

Naturalist paintings quite often tell a story, one that can easily be perceived by the viewer. A single painting often includes so many details that you can imagine an entire story. This differed greatly from the more modern paintings being produced. Still, these two contrasting styles occurred side by side at the end of the 19th century. The modern paintings gave the viewer much less information for figuring out the given scene. Sometimes they did not even have a story.

Determine the criteria for Salon paintings at the end of the 19th century. The Salon des refuss was established in 1863. It presented works of art that had been rejected by the other Salon. Determine what kind of art was accepted at the Salon des refuss and how it differed from that shown in the official Salon. Honor Daumier made caricatures of the public at the Salon. Find drawings by Daumier about the Salon on the Internet. What point was Daumier trying to make with his caricatures? Did he succeed? What can you learn about Salon practices from these drawings? Honor Daumier made caricatures of the public at the Salon. Find drawings by Daumier and naturalist paintings (for example, via Google) on the Internet. Let them inspire you to make a cartoon in response to a naturalist painting or an art exhibition.

Select a naturalist painting. Write a story in which one of the scenes you describe is the one depicted in the painting. Select a naturalist painting. Find a more modern painting that you believe tells a comparable story in art books or on the Internet. Explain why you think the same subject is depicted as well as the way in which the paintings differ most. Select a naturalist painting. Describe the thoughts and feelings of each character in the painting that he or she might have at that moment.

iNduSTrialiSaTiON aNd rural lifE

Some naturalist paintings criticised social developments, such as the impact of industrialisation on rural life. Is there an issue in present-day society that you believe warrants critical attention? How would you want to make this abuse clear? Would you make a painting of it? What would it look like? Would you choose another way to call attention to the problem? Describe how you would go about doing this and/or actually do it now.

Top image: Nikolaj Kasatkin, Poor people collecting coal in an abandoned pit, 1894, The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg


Compare Let the little children come to me by Fritz von Uhde with the Pieta by Vincent van Gogh. Both paintings represent a story from the Bible. Even though they were made just a few years apart at the end of the 19th century, they nevertheless differ greatly.

List some differences in the style in which the artists painted. The way in which they wanted to tell the biblical story deviates. What is the greatest difference? Van Goghs painting is entitled Pieta (after Delacroix). Look up Pieta on the Internet. You can find Van Goghs painting on the Van Gogh Museum website. What does after Delacroix mean?

Vincent wrote the following about von Uhdes painting Let the little children come to me:
Theo, you mustnt think that if I saw Uhdes painting itself I would lose the impression I got of it. I say again that I believe this man will go the same way as Knaus and Lobrichon namely that after a few things full of character, the very technique will play a dirty trick on him, thats to say hell start working more and more correctly and more and more drily.
Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, Monday, 6 July 1885

Vincent van Gogh mentioned Fritz von Uhde more than once in his letters. Find the letters in which Van Gogh wrote about Fritz von Uhde at Use the search term Uhde. Explain in your own words what Van Gogh thought about this painting by von Uhde. Do you agree with him? Explain why or why not.

Top left image: Fritz von Uhde, Let the little children come to me, 1884, Museum der bildenden Knste, Leipzig Top right image: Vincent van Gogh, Pieta (after Delacroix), 1889, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)


In this painting The geography lesson The black stain made by Albert Bettannier in 1887, schoolchildren are being taught about the conflict surrounding Alsace-Lorraine.

Look up what the Alsace-Lorraine conflict was all about. How did the artist view it? And, how is this reflected in the painting?

The way in which naturalist painters conveyed their stories in a single image greatly influenced the cinema. These motion pictures provided new possibilities for telling stories to the public and were first shown in the last decade of the 19th century. Some film directors used naturalist visual language to do so. This was done, for example, in the films that were made of the naturalist novels by the French writer mile Zola.

Select a naturalist painting. Can you imagine that this painting represents a scene from a film? What do you think would happen in the next scene? And what happened previously? Who are the leading characters? What is their story? Make a storyboard: sketches of a sequence of scenes. The painting is the middle scene. Draw two scenes before and two after it. While making your storyboard think about zooming in, the surroundings, and the development of the story. When you are done, compare it to those of your classmates. Do you understand each others stories? Are there comparable story lines? Select a naturalist painting. Make a short film in which you include the scene that you see in the painting. Of course, you can reverse the influence paintings had on film. Select a scene from one of your favourite movies and make a painting of it.

Top image: Albert Bettannier, The geography lesson The black stain, 1887, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin


Some naturalist artists used photographs as the basis for their paintings. Accordingly, their paintings make a very realistic impression. Photographs allowed them to study reality very closely. The French artist Jules-Alexis Muenier often relied on photographs when making his paintings. For Beautiful days he took several photographs of his wife and young son. The other people in the painting are not relatives, but were included to complete the picture of a family. For Muenier, photography had one great advantage: he no longer had to make so much as a sketch before he started to paint. The photographs were his point of departure. Nevertheless, some art critics noted that the use of photography had disadvantages.

The Van Gogh Museum would like to see the results of your lessons; poems, photos and images of paintings can be sent to Please include the name, age and class of the student and the name of the school.

Top left image: Jules-Alexis Muenier, preparatory photo for Beautiful days, c. 1889, collection family of the artist Top right image: Jules-Alexis Muenier, Beautiful days, 1889, Bradley P. Radichel

Write an essay defending the following position: Artists who rely on photographs to make their paintings are cheating. Naturalist artists used photographs to make their paintings more realistic. Ultimately, however, they did not paint reality entirely faithfully. Rather, they manipulated it for the sake of a perfect composition. This gave the artist a certain power over reality. Experience this power for yourself. Take a photograph of an event in your life and manipulate it to achieve an ideal image. Perhaps a person is missing in your photograph, or you wore the wrong clothes. This can be corrected by altering the photo in a graphics-editing programme on the computer. Select a naturalist painting. Take a photograph imitating the scene in the painting as precisely as possible. Pay attention to the surroundings, the clothing worn by the figures, and the lighting. You can also make a more modern version of the painting, on the condition that you try to approximate its atmosphere in your photograph. Make your own naturalist painting with the help of photography. First, take a series of photographs and then use them to determine your composition. To enlarge a photograph to the size of your painting, try the trick that Jules-Alexis Muenier probably used. Divide your photo into different sections. By dividing your canvas in the same way, you can easily transfer the sections in the photo to the corresponding sections in the canvas.



baCkGrOuNd iNfOrmaTiON ON NaTuraliSm

The 19th century was a multifaceted period, in which the norms and values of both society and the art world changed drastically. It witnessed the shift of art education from the atelier to the academy, the opening of the first public museums, and the growing importance of artists as individuals. Nineteenth-century artists and art movements have been studied extensively; even so, some lacunas remained. For instance, Professor Gabriel Weisberg discovered the existence between 1875 and 1918 of a long unrecognised art movement, namely Naturalism. In his book Beyond Impressionism. The Naturalist Impulse, Weisberg demonstrated that around the turn of the 20th century the work of European and North-American artists was stylistically uniform. Interestingly there was no structured mutual collaboration or a joint manifesto. However, through a common (unconscious) pursuit in terms of style and content it can, in fact, be called an art movement. Although the name of this movement might suggest otherwise, Naturalism does not mean that the paintings always strictly reflected reality. In contrast to realist painters, the naturalists took creative liberties, transforming their works from depictions of raw reality into carefully composed scenes that tell a story about society.

A discussion arose in the mid-19th century regarding which painting style could best convey modern life. The popularity of historical, mythological and allegorical scenes steadily diminished in favour of scenes from daily life. Not only did the themes have to be appealing, contemporary viewers also had to recognise themselves in and learn from them, which is why naturalist painters depicted the life of the common man. As a result, their work was ideally suited for display in public spaces, such as town halls or universities. Consequently, naturalist painters often worked on commission for the government. They scaled their works to show up well in the large spaces where they came to hang.

Naturalism addressed subjects in daily life. These can be grouped into several categories: rural life, industry, politics, religion and youth.



rural lifE
Naturalist artists often painted peasants in the countryside. Sometimes they chose this subject to present an idyllic image of rural life. However, this changed with the advent of the industrial revolution and artists were eager to immortalise this disappearing way of life. This can be seen, for example, in The haymakers by the French artist Lon Augustin Lhermitte. Other artists captured the raw side of rural life and did not shy away from social problems, such as alcoholism. The enormous painting Grimaces and misery by Fernand Pelez shows a group of travelling circus performers. The harshness of their life is announced in the title and can also be sensed instantly in the painting. The painter underscored a poignant irony: the acrobats and clowns, who travel through villages and towns to entertain others, themselves lead a bleak existence. The impression this work made at the Salon was profound.

Top image: Lon Augustin Lhermitte, The haymakers, 1887, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) Bottom image: Fernand Pelez, 1848-1913, Grimaces and misery, 1888, Petit Palais, Muse des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris, Paris



At the time of the naturalist movement, the consequences of the industrial revolution were also recorded on canvas. Some artists wanted to highlight the value of manual labour, others were more interested in rendering the harsh reality of factory life. One of the paintings portraying factory workers is The ironworkers noontime by the American artist Thomas Anshutz. Like his teacher Thomas Eakins, he relied on photography to compose his paintings. Each figure in The ironworkers noontime seems to have been studied and photographed in an atelier, and then incorporated in the painting. However, no photographic evidence to this effect has ever been found. The ironworkers noontime depicts workers at a nail factory in Wheeling, West Virginia. Washed and stretching their muscles, they are shown taking a break after working hard, recalling images of ancient Greek athletes.

Anshutz grew up near this factory and was fully aware of the difficulties facing this industry through overproduction: if the factory were forced to close, the small town of Wheeling would probably also disappear. On the one hand, this painting can be considered a tribute to the factory worker, and on the other it may have been intended as a monument to a way of life on the verge of extinction. The Finnish artist Eero Jrnefelt made a darker image of the effects of industry. In his painting Under the yoke (Burning the brushwood) we see labourers clearing a wooded section of land. Their clothing and circumstances betray just how heavy and dangerous this work is. Particularly the exhausted child staring ahead was meant to make viewers question the quality of these peoples life.

Top image: Thomas Anshutz, 1851-1912, The ironworkers noontime, 1880, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Mr and Mrs John D. Rockefeller 3rd Bottom image: Eero Jrnefelt, 1863-1937, Under the yoke (Burning the brushwood), 1893, Ateneum, Art Museum Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki



Naturalist artists depicted political events in a penetrating and at times biased manner. For example, in The strike at Le Creusot by Jules Adler, the artists sympathies clearly lie with the striking labourers. This painting was exhibited in the Salon in 1900. It presents a mass of people moving as a single entity in protest against the repression of their employers. The painter probably went to Creusot to gain a realistic idea of the strikers grievances first hand.

Top image: Jules Adler, The strike at Le Creusot, 1899, Muse des Beaux Arts, Pau



Religion was also often the subject of naturalist paintings, but then rendered in a different, untraditional way. This genre was adapted to the demands of modern times. The life of Christ by Ernest Renan, of 1863, influenced the way in which Christ was depicted. In this book, Renan wanted to humanise Christ, so that anyone could identify with him. In paintings Christ was given human traits and shown participating in daily life. An example of this is Fritz von Uhdes Let the little children come to me, in which Christ is shown in a 19th-century interior as an ordinary man without a halo and approachable for the children surrounding him. The religious feelings and experiences of the common man were also conveyed in naturalist paintings. In these works, humble human beings were endowed with saintly characteristics: a praying labourer could be depicted as though he were a devout saint. Using Christian subjects, attention could be focused on contemporary issues of injustice. For instance, a painting of the Good Samaritan by Aim-Nicolas Morot became an exhortation to care for the sick and needy.

Top left image: Fritz von Uhde, 1848-1911, Let the little children come to me, 1884, Museum der Bildende Kunste, Leipzig Top right image: Aim-Nicolas Morot, The Good Samaritan, 1880, Petit Palais, Muse des Beaux Arts de la Ville Paris, Paris



Ideas on the education and the raising of children changed in the 19th century. This, too, was expressed in naturalist art. An example of this is The geography lesson The black stain, in which a class is being taught about a conflict between France and Germany. In the painting a teacher points his stick at a large black area on a map. After the Franco-German War (1870-1871), this territory - AlsaceLorraine, which originally was part of France was annexed by Germany. The message of the painting is easily understood: French youngsters had to learn that this territory belonged to France and would one day be returned it.

Top image: Albert Bettannier, The geography lesson The black stain, 1887, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin



ThE iNfluENCE Of phOTOGraphy ON NaTuraliST paiNTiNGS

Various naturalist painters relied on photography in making a painting. They would manipulate the figures and the setting in a photograph to arrive at the best composition. Because of their realistic rendering, such paintings made a great impression on the public. Some artists even became avid amateur photographers, including Jules-Alexis Muenier and Thomas Anshutz. Another development was emerging at the same time: photography began to evolve into an art form. In 1886, an English painter and photographer, Peter Henry Emerson, wrote an influential book entitled Naturalist Photography for the Art Student. He argued that photography should not be staged, but be real. The advent of photography as an art form prompted a discussion about the role of painting in rendering reality. The effect photographs had on the making of paintings varied. For example, in the paintings the figures sometimes seem oddly situated in their surroundings. Another effect is evident in the painting All Saints Day by mile Friant, in which a family visiting a cemetery is portrayed. A young girl offers a coin to a beggar seated at the entrance. She is depicted in suspended motion, her foot hovering just above the ground and her arm outstretched. This suggestion of movement recalls photography. The painting elicited a note of criticism: a caricature of All Saints Day was made in which the beggar is shown with a camera in his lap. The use of photography as a tool to facilitate the painting process was thus not always viewed in a positive light.

Top left image: mile Friant, All Saints Day, 1888, Muse des Beaux Arts, Nancy

Top right image: Caricature of All Saints Day, Le Journal Amusant, 1889, Bibliothque Nationale de France, Paris



milE ZOla: NaTuraliST liTEraTurE, ThEaTrE aNd CiNEma

Naturalism was not only a movement in the visual arts, but also in literature, photography and cinema. One of the leading proponents of Naturalism was not a painter, but a writer: mile Zola. Zola was instrumental in the development of a new naturalist writing style. Preparatory to his novels he filled notebooks with his observations on the basis of which he hoped to portray his characters objectively. This is comparable to the studies made by painters, who use sketches (and possibly photographs) as tools for observing reality. In his novels, Zola levelled criticism at the dark side of man and society. He broke through taboos, writing about incest, prostitution, rape and alcoholism. In a precise style he ruthlessly described the shortcomings of his main characters. He set his stories in surroundings recognisable to his readers; for example, a rural or industrial environment. This choice also had a bearing on painting. Zola aimed to describe the life of peasants and labourers and painters followed suit. Zola wanted his novels to reach as many people as possible. To this end he published them in serials in newspapers. He also ensured that inexpensive paperback editions were available on the market. He enjoyed giving interviews, which in turn drew great attention to his books. In order to bring his novels even closer to the pubic, he made stage adaptations of some of them. In these plays, as in his novels, Zola attempted to approximate reality. This impacted the dcor of his plays: the customary painted backdrops were replaced with real objects. The theatre critics were not enthusiastic, however. They found Zolas plays banal. The next step for Zolas stories was cinema, a new medium first used in the last years of the 19th century. This technique opened up new possibilities for presenting stories to the public. The early cinematographers undoubtedly saw the impressive naturalist paintings at the Salon and could also draw a great deal of inspiration from the theatre. However, while in the theatre an attempt was made to create the most realistic possible setting, filmmakers could actually go to the places where the story took place.

Zolas novel Germinal was shot on location in 1913. The director Albert Capellani filmed the conflict between an employer and his employees in a very naturalist manner. Germinal is about wealthy capitalists in the mining industry and the power they wield over poor labourers. Nevertheless, these labourers also have power, namely by going on strike they disrupt the dominion of the rich. Capellani conveyed his view on power relations through subtle visual clues. For example, hanging in the residence of the mines owner is a painting that refers to a work of Constantin Meunier. This artist was known primarily for his heroic portrayal of labourers, and mine workers in particular. An eye for detail is also characteristic of naturalist paintings. This gives the viewer more background information about the story, which in a painting, after all, has to be told in a single image.

Top left image: Hubert von Herkomer, On strike, 1891, Royal Academy of London, London

Top right image: Film still Albert Capellani, The strike /The charge, Germinal, 1913, Gaumont-Path Archives, Saint-Ouen



Naturalist art affords an image of society in the period 1875 1918. Artists at the time often added an extra dimension to their works, however: they did not just depict what they saw, but used and adapted reality to say something about society. By showing daily life, they wanted people to reflect on social issues. By the end of the 19th century, avant-garde movements took the lead, finding new ways to depict life. Naturalism no longer dominated and the movement was subsequently forgotten.

addiTiONal rEadiNG
The exhibition Illusions of reality: Naturalist painting, photography and cinema, 1875-1918 is accompanied by a catalogue of the same title. It is available in the Van Gogh Museum store, via the Van Gogh Museums online shop, and in quality bookstores. Gabriel P. Weisberg, Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse, New York 1992

Top image: Albert Edelfelt, Conveying the childs coffin, 1879, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki