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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Taken in a historical sense, “naturalism in art” desig-
nates certain fairly obvious features to be met with
in the fine arts and in the literature of various periods.
Taken in a more reflective sense, however, the expres-
sion raises fundamental questions as to basic artistic
elements and the development of art.

In ordinary usage, as found in dictionary definitions,
“naturalism” denotes a theory or doctrine of art that
specifies “conformity to nature” as the primary crite-
rion of a work of art. The trouble with all such general
definitions is that they are too vague: “conformity with
nature's external appearances” would be more exact.
Another vagueness is the way “naturalism” is used
interchangeably with “realism,” especially in French
and Italian. (In art history neither term has much of
a connection with philosophers' usage of the same
terms.) In modern German, this vagueness is somewhat
mitigated using “realism” for the more general mean-
ing of any sort of fidelity to nature—including the
subject matter of works of art—reserving “naturalism”
for works in which “realism” is carried to extreme,
for example, in the treatment of detail. In German,
Verismus (from the Italian verismo) denotes a still more
extreme fidelity to the actual appearance of the subject
as found in nature.

As a term designating a recognized stylistic move-
ment, “naturalism” is only used in connection with
literature, not with the visual arts. It refers to a type
of narrative and dramatic writing that appeared in the
second half of the nineteenth century, primarily in
Germany (Gerhart Hauptmann, Arno Holz, Johannes
Schlaf), in France (Émile Zola), and occasionally also
in Russian and Scandinavian literature. This is the
earliest use of this term to designate a style, although
it was occasionally used before then in a purely de-
scriptive sense, perhaps most strikingly in Bellori's
major work, L'Idea del pittore, dello scultore e dell'ar-
(1664). Here the author emphatically rejects
“naturalists” of the Caravaggio sort. (Bellori's attitude
has been examined in detail by Erwin Panofsky in his
basic study Idea, in which the problem of “naturalism”
is treated from the epistomological point of view.) Used
in this derogatory sense, the term still turns up in the
mid-nineteenth century, e.g., in the most important of
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller's programmatic writings.
In his Andeutungen zur Belebung der vaterländischen
bildenden Kunst
(Vienna, 1857), this painter admits
proudly to being a “naturalist,” in reply to critics who
had called him just that. Also in a positive sense, the
term was used by the art critic Castagnary who re-
ferred to the painters of early French impressionism
as the “school of naturalism” (école naturaliste) and
described their works as “naturalistic,” thereby win-
ning Zola's approval. (See Castagnary's reviews of the
Salons from 1863 on; Zola's article “Le Naturalisme
au Salon, I,” in Le Voltaire of June 18, 1880; and John
Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York
[1946], esp. pp. 126ff.)

At the turn of the century, which also marked a
turning point in art—namely, a period when naturalism
was beginning to be rejected—we find the same atti-
tude in major art historical writings. In Die Wiener
(Vienna, 1895), Franz Wickhoff analyzed a
decidedly naturalistic period of art, namely, the “offi-
cial” art of imperial Rome, describing it as an “imita-
tive naturalistic style,” and occasionally referring to
it as an “arid naturalism”; however, what he had pri-
marily meant was a specific genre which he called
“illusionistic style.” Alois Riegl—in his major work
Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (1901) and also in his
Stilfragen (1893)—has practically excluded the concept
of naturalism, because he was essentially interested in
the analysis of form and the autonomy of the creative
components it implies. A similar line was taken by
Heinrich Wölfflin, according to whom the subject of
naturalism has nothing to do with his inquiries into
the history and psychology of form, as can be seen from
the very title of his major work, Kunstgeschichtliche
Grundbegriffe: Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der
neueren Kunst
(1915). In his essay Idealismus und
Naturalismus in der gotischen Skulptur und Malerei

(1918), the art historian Max Dvořák supplied no defi-
nition of naturalism although it was a key term in his
inquiry. This hardly helped remedy the all too common
vagueness prevailing in its usage.

Obviously, without a more exact definition, the term
is of limited value; it has advantages as well as disad-
vantages. The principal value of “naturalistic” as a
cursory description of a work of art is that it evokes
comparisons with some model in nature. So far as it
goes, this usage offers a useful basis for comparison,
though it is a purely quantitative one. The trouble is,


no one can state clearly where the presumed “closeness
to nature” exactly begins or ends. In extreme cases,
there is no argument, but within these rather wide
limits (of exact fidelity to and unmistakable departure
from the model in nature), “naturalistic” suffers the
same shortcomings as all designations of quantity or
degree. Moreover, it is possible to make a rough yet
decisive distinction between a partial naturalism that
refers only to portions of a representation, and a
thoroughgoing or total naturalism. This total natural-
ism, in contrast to partial naturalism, includes the
principal elements of visual reality, such as the illu-
sionistic treatment of space (whether linear or aerial
perspective) and of light. Therefore total naturalism
does not appear until relatively late in the history of
painting, whereas a partial naturalism can be found
in so-called “pre-perspective” representations, as for
example, in ancient Egyptian and Assyrian reliefs. It
is clear that it is possible to single out certain compar-
atively naturalistic features. We find greater or lesser
care in rendering anatomy and physiognomy, the
structure, surfaces, and textures of living and inanimate
things alike. “Partial” naturalism is far commoner in
the history of art than “total” naturalism. The latter
appears to be a very late development within any
artistic tradition.

So much, then, for the relatively short history of the
term's usage. We have now to go on to the much
lengthier and more involved matter of what the term
designates, whether within a given artistic period, a
given style, a given artistic genre, or a given single
work of art. This must lead to the question of where
“naturalism” stands in relation to other artistic elements.

One of the most striking observations to be made,
even in the most cursory survey, is how often natural-
ism turns up cheek-by-jowl with other artistic prac-
tices, even of the seemingly most unrelated or opposed
sorts. We have already mentioned Egyptian and
Assyrian reliefs. In them, the naturalism or closeness
to nature, is in the treatment of the figures, whereas
everything else, including their overall rhythmic orga-
nization, derives entirely from other sources or tradi-
tions. The figures are set in the void, and there is no
equivalent striving for perceptual accuracy anywhere
else in these works. We find something very similar
in the art of the late Middle Ages in Europe, as for
example in the manuscript illustrations of ca. 1400, as
well as in the painting from the Van Eycks on (Figure
1). Here the richest naturalism in the treatment of
visual detail is combined with age-old obedience to
general principles of symmetry and compositional or-
ganization profoundly at odds with naturalism, al-
though to some extent a nascent concern for perspec-
tive begins to make itself felt. Perhaps the next most
important effort at a strict naturalism occurs in the
portraits of Hans Holbein the Younger (Figure 2). Here,
too, painstaking naturalism in the representation of the
human body—as well as of inanimate objects—is linked
with compositional schemes of an entirely different
inspiration; yet the gulf between the two grows nar-
rower. At least where the pictorial scene represents
rooms within houses, the perspective employed is
closer to our habitual ways of seeing.

In naturalism of the baroque era, the compositional
scheme is altered to accommodate lifelike, true-to-
nature figures and details. We see this in Caravaggio,
who also contributes a new element to the “naturalistic”
repertory: the representation of light and dark. By and
large, however, baroque painting as a whole is not
characterized by so extreme a pursuit of naturalistic
effects. Another example is the art of Vermeer van
Delft. What is so special about Vermeer's naturalism,
as also about Caravaggio's, is the way fresh attention
to light as found in nature leads to further modifications
of the general compositional scheme, within which the


naturalistic elements seem more at home than in the
Netherlandish primitives or in the Renaissance masters.
The secret of this mode of composition is its adapt-
ability to perspective as perceived in nature. Vermeer's
naturalism could almost be called a “total” (rather than
a “partial”) naturalism, were it not for the extraor-
dinary stillness and splendor of his predominant forms.
Like the older modes of composition that survived
down to the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance,
Vermeer's naturalism has its source in a kind of creative
aim other than in a mere striving for fidelity to nature
in the individual figure. And there is something more,
the peculiar contribution to the baroque: painterly
illusionism. The latter will be discussed below, in ref-
erence to the sort of baroque naturalism most impor-
tantly represented by Velázquez and Frans Hals.

We encounter much the same combination of natu-
ralism, in the treatment of certain details and certain
forms, with an essentially antithetical (“idealistic”)
structure, in some classicist works of the late eighteenth
century in France. One of the most striking of these
is Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat, the whole
point of which lies in its attempted synthesis of natu-
ralistic detail with a grander sort of formal conception.
This work influenced artists for a long time and pro-
duced important results, above all, in French painting,
e.g., Géricault's Raft of the “Medusa” and the work
of Ingres. The few examples we give here—it being
understood that in some cases one great name stands
for a group—show how a naturalism of detail was
subordinated to a conception of pictorial form, and
how the two were more or less fully and adequately

In the treatment of landscape and human figure in
the romantic movement of the early nineteenth cen-
tury, the attempted synthesis was often successful,
especially in the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich
and Ferdinand Olivier. Their assiduous pursuit of
naturalism proved not incompatible with the “idealis-
tic” character of their approach to the subject.

At the same time, however, such success as was
achieved along this line was destined not to be perpet-
uated indefinitely. In particular, the relationship be-
tween the general composition and “partial” natural-
ism began to change, and the moment of balance
passed. The successful synthesis lasted longer, however,
in the explicitly naturalistic landscape painting of the
Biedermeier period, one of the high points in nine-
teenth-century naturalism in art. The most striking
examples are the landscapes and townscapes by Wald-
müller and Rudolf von Alt in Austria, Eduard Gärtner's
city-scapes in Germany, and the landscapes by
Wilhelm Eckersberg and Christen Købke in Denmark.
In Biedermeier genre painting, on the other hand,
a considerable conventionalism becomes apparent in
the composition, as also in the historical painting
around mid-century. The artistic unity of the pictorial
whole appears most clearly threatened, however,
wherever naturalism is put at the service of a pro-
grammatically “idealistic” figurative painting, e.g., in
the art of an Anselm Feuerbach. This development
occurred concomitantly with the growing importance
of realism and naturalism in the arts, at the expense
of such more “intellectual,” perhaps even idealistic
“intellectual” painting as that of the Pre-Raphaelites
and the first stirrings of “Jugendstil” (Art Nouveau).
Such movements represented a reaction to naturalism:
a more symbolic treatment of nature and history, a
new formalism in composition. The art of Fernand
Khnopff supplies an especially revealing case in point.
Gradually a basic antagonism was beginning to take
shape between naturalistic modes of representation and
a new attention to the super- or extra-natural proper-
ties of a subject, an antagonism that had not arisen
at earlier stages in the history of art. Occasionally in
the painting of the second half of the nineteenth cen-
tury, there are to be found individual instances of an
unmistakable, seemingly naive, yet amazingly vigorous
naturalism of the older, more poised variety, especially
evident in Wilhelm Leibl's works (those of his so-called
“Holbein period”) and in works by Edgar Degas and
Adolf Menzel.


Throughout the nineteenth century, however, a type
of naturalism makes its appearance in painting that
can hardly be mentioned in the same breath with what
we have been describing so far. This is what has come
to be known as impressionism, i.e., a painterly illusion-
ism that turns up in very different forms and in very
different degrees. Its earliest, “classical” manifestation
is found in the art of Constable and Corot (again, we
are letting single names stand for larger groups), and
its final stages extend well beyond the impressionist
movement proper into the twentieth century. It will
not do to speak of “illusionistic naturalism,” however,
for the naturalism we have so far mentioned is also
quite illusionistic, and intended to be so. The difference
is that the new illusionism is characterized by a
loosening of pictorial forms, and so is illusionistic in
a twofold sense, in two layers, so to speak. The mode
of representation with compact, closed forms and
tightly modeled bodies of course implies a certain
negation, an attempt to make us forget the picture
plane, whereas in the more “open” treatment with the
brush-strokes showing, a further process of optical
projection is added; the viewer is expected continu-
ously to combine the tiny “microstructures” into an
illusion of bodies and space. Here we cannot, of course,
go into much detail, but the difference can also be
defined as that between a relatively simple or naive
illusionism, corresponding to the way we actually see
the world around us, and a more complicated illusion-
ism. This is not intended to be taken as a value judg-
ment; only insofar as nineteenth-century impressionism
represents the most radical type of illusionism does it
have historical validity. In principle, naturalistic illu-
sionism has a long history, the main stages are to be
found in late antique art, progressively diminishing in
the painting of the early Middle Ages and then, after
a long interruption, emerging in the centuries of
baroque painting.

To the extent that illusionism may be equated with
naturalism, we discover still another duality—besides
what we earlier called “partial” and “total” naturalism
—namely, a direct and an indirect naturalism, the latter
characterized by the kind of optical projection prac-
ticed by the impressionists.

Naturalism makes its appearance in sculpture at the
same time as it does in the two-dimensional arts of
painting and drawing, taking into consideration the
limitations of the medium. That is, there were natural-
istic sculptures in the antique period, in the Hellenistic
era, in the art of the Roman Empire, in the late Middle
Ages, in the early and the high Renaissance, to a lesser
extent in baroque and neo-classical art, but becoming
increasingly widespread in the nineteenth century,
especially in its final phase. The distinction between
“partial” and “total” naturalism, which strictly speak-
ing is applicable only to two-dimensional art, in a
broader sense can be applied to naturalistic sculpture
in the round, in that the latter incorporates the real
space in which it stands.

Even such a very rough classification and enumera-
tion casts some light on the part played by naturalism
in the history of art, at least of its outward aspects.
Above all, it enables us to see more clearly how partial
naturalism developed historically into total naturalism,
how painting gradually broadened its horizons, going
beyond representation of individual beings to recogni-
tion of a supra-individual nature, giving ever more to
the dominating elements of space and light. The result
was incontestably a broadening of knowledge, but of
course it can be so evaluated only in terms of a nature-
oriented theory of art. It was the attempt to achieve
an ever closer rendering of the phenomena of nature
as externally visible that led to a supra-individual con-
ception of nature.

At the same time, ever since the classical age and
continuing down through the Middle Ages, there had
been a non-naturalistic, “idealistic” strain in Western
art, which had no room for individuality as such, due
either to obedience to religion or to theological preoc-
cupations with the cosmos, the “whole.” Even after
the late Middle Ages, when Western art became in-
creasingly concerned with individual things as such and
with the external appearance of nature for their own
sakes, so that what we have called “partial” naturalism
began to come to the fore, the ultimately transcenden-
tal strain in Christian thought still held sway, by no
means to the detriment of creativity. Only with the
development of a “total” naturalism in the course of
the nineteenth century was Western art at last secular-
ized, and antagonism expressed in quarrels between
“idealists” and “realists”—ultimately between “ideal-
ists” and “naturalists.” And yet the “profane” (as
opposed to the “divine”) view of the world, the
“earthly” sort of naturalism, held its own for a com-
paratively short time only. It soon gave rise to a
worldly view that subordinated individual man and
particular nonhuman phenomena to general laws. And
recently, when a type of naturalism once again ap-
peared on the scene, namely the surrealist art of our
century, it was again a “partial” naturalism, this time
bound within the limits of the spheres of fantasy.

The foregoing rapid survey of naturalism's ups and
downs in the evolution of art—of European art, for
there is no parallel current in the art of extra-European
cultures—has told us next to nothing about the essence
of naturalism in art, nor about its function in the proc-
ess of artistic creation. All we have done is to view
it externally, noting that it reached a sort of culmina-


tion in all the arts in the course of the nineteenth
century beyond anything hitherto seen. The nineteenth
century was “realistic” and “naturalistic” par excel-

Accordingly it is reasonable to suppose that we shall
get at what is essential in naturalism most readily by
concentrating on nineteenth-century art and theories
of art. Looking back over the long conflict between
the antithetic ideologies of idealism and naturalism—
irresolvable because involving basic differences con-
cerning the nature of creative activity—we can see
that idealism (taking this term in its broadest sense)
has kept its dominant position, whereas naturalism has
been put on the defensive. Nonetheless, it has to be
pointed out that most of modern Western art's signifi-
cant achievements were conceived of as being “on the
side of” naturalism, that is, enlisted under its banner.
Realism and naturalism forged ahead in all the arts
in self-conscious opposition to whatever was the pre-
vailing “idealistic” art, penetrating first neo-classicism,
then romanticism. It is instructive to examine the
record here, to discover just how this state of affairs
came about. During the so-called Age of Enlighten-
ment, the era of Winckelmann, Lessing, Kant, Schiller,
and Goethe, more firmly constructed theories of art
were produced than any that had been attempted since
the Renaissance. These theories gave explicit recogni-
tion to the autonomy of art as a human activity. As
never before, attention was drawn to creative capaci-
ties as such in this particular sphere, and to actual
works of art explicitly distinguished from the world
of reality. In its expression, however, this insight was
greatly influenced by the prevailing neo-classicism of
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a
rather simplifying aesthetic program. In reaction to it,
champions of naturalism could attempt only an even
simpler program, following the slogan “be true to
nature,” “be true to life.” However, this implies that
the ultimate or essential source of creativity lies in the
artist's experience with nature. Thus the program of
the naturalists was much less pretentious and more
primitive than that of their adversaries.

One among many passages that might be cited is
Courbet's argument of his Réalisme: L'art en peinture
ne saurait consister que dans la représentation des
objets visibles et tangibles pour l'artiste.... Je tiens
aussi que la peinture est un art essentiellement
et ne peut consister que dans la représentation des
réelles et existantes... (“In painting, the art
comes to no more than the representation of those
objects that the artist himself sees and touches....
I also take the line that painting is essentially a concrete
art; there is no more to it than the representation of
real, actually existing things”). This down-to-earth,
plain man's attitude is not so remote as then seemed
from the classical philosophic conception of mimesis
or imitation of nature—a conception that antedates all
subsequent reflection on the visual arts. A number of
nineteenth-century thinkers—Schopenhauer, among
others—were not overwhelmed by this sort of “strict
realism,” which Plato had long since questioned. The
question arose: What, then, is the purpose of adding
an image of nature or reality to what we are already
in full enjoyment of? As Panofsky pointed out, the
theory of art now reached an antinomy: aesthetics was
at loggerheads with itself. Throughout the nineteenth
century, the long controversy was softened by remem-
bering how the thinkers of the Enlightenment had
assured artists of “being on their own,” and in the late
nineteenth century theories of art were formulated by
Konrad Fiedler and Alois Riegl who stressed the artist's
specific functions with respect to imagination and
formal structure. However, theoretical justifications of
this type are as valid for one kind of work of art as
another: the naturalistic vision is merely one kind of
vision, naturalistic art merely an art “like any other.”

At present we can view nineteenth-century natural-
ism in perspective, so that it is possible to look at the
works themselves and ask just what sets them off from
the other kinds of art; in just what does their particular
contribution consist. Let us assume, not unreasonably,
that the true criteria of a work of art lie in its basic
conception, in its overall construction, in a Kunstwoll-
(as Riegl put it) on the part of the working artist.
On the basis of such criteria, however, how can the
extreme naturalistic work hope to rate very high? In
a really thoroughgoing piece of naturalism, what room
is left for the artist's ordering will, in any truly creative
sense? Applying such criteria we are confronted with
the question: Is naturalism just indifferent to the more
inventive aspects of art, or is it actively hostile to them?
Following this line of reflection, we may perhaps re-
duce all such questions to one: What makes an extreme
naturalistic work, presented as such, a full-fledged work
of art “despite everything”? Here we might recall
Théophile Gautier's famous exclamation when he stood
in front of that great picture, Velázquez's Las Meninas,
one of the masterpieces of naturalism: Où est donc le
(“But where's the picture?”) In relation to
the above questions, his exclamation must be regarded
as a criticism.

Needless to say, there is an answer to the question:
What makes a naturalistic work a work of art? Why,
its quality, of course! There is a good deal of truth
in this, but also a certain glibness: as is well known,
“quality” evades precise definition. It is not the ulti-
mate answer, in any case not a full one. Moreover,
though the discrimination of quality is fundamental in


all art appreciation, it is not a discrimination that sheds
much light upon naturalistic works as opposed to other
kinds of work: some abstract or fantastic works, for
example, are also incontestably better than others in
the same category. Obviously, to grasp the specific
character of naturalistic art, we have to descend from
the theoretical heights to the actual works themselves.

Paintings like the Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals
(1624) in the Wallace Collection, London, and Wilhelm
Leibl's Three Women in Church (1878-82) in the
Hamburg Kunsthalle are of remarkable artistic inten-
sity and stand out as leading examples of pictorial
naturalism (Figures 3, 4). At first glance they look about
even on the score of attention to external physical
appearances—logically speaking, all outspokenly
naturalistic works should be at the same level—yet
closer examination reveals basic differences. Seemingly,
in its entirety as in every single one of its parts, Leibl's
picture exhibits a masterly attention to detail, a “liter-
alness” in the rendering of substances and surfaces,
without the slightest lapse into a painterly technique,
which attracts the viewers' attention. In his main works
of this period Leibl was consciously going back to such
a model of late-medieval, Netherlandish naturalism as
well as Holbein. The Hals portrait shows the same type
of naturalism especially in the rendering of the head,
but in other parts, especially the clothing, he had
recourse to an “indirect” naturalism of the more paint-
erly, illusionistic sort. The difference is most apparent
when the two works are viewed up close; stand back
a bit from the Hals and the treatment of the clothing
blends perfectly with that of the head. (In his early
group paintings, above all the two officer's banquets
of 1627, Hals had employed the “illusionistic” tech-
nique throughout with virtuoso skill to create a
breathtaking “lifelike” effect. His other technique, for
achieving a more “direct” sort of naturalism is much
rarer in the works by him that have come down to
us; the face of the Laughing Cavalier is the most nota-
ble example of it.)

As for the compositional elements of these two pic-
tures that prove decisive from the strictly formal point
of view, one of these is quite obvious. Both pictures
are very emphatically composed to contrast figures
portrayed in depth against an absolutely flat back-
ground. The contrast may be a trifle less marked in the
Hals portrait simply because the motif is a less complex
one. Nonetheless, the cavalier's pose is so aggressively
striking that it is quite as effective compositionally as
the arrangement of three figures in Leibl's painting.
Though more complex, the latter is easy to grasp, and
we are in no doubt about the careful planning that
went into it (one painted sketch survives, as evidence
of this point, though only two of the figures appear
in it). There are any number of carefully though-out
parallels, interlockings, and other interrelationships in
the way the rather constricted picture space has been
filled; for example, the curves at the ends of the pew
reflect curves in the female figures—especially the
figure in the middle, or the way the three figures
gradually turn their bodies towards us, accentuating
the development in depth. At the same time there is
one departure from correct perspective, as has fre-
quently been pointed out. The figure of the young
peasant woman in the foreground is disproportionately
large, especially her hands in relation to her face. It
is hardly surprising that a representation of such fidelity
to natural models should be criticized for something
less than accuracy on the score of perspective. This
might then be the appropriate place to ask: Just how
is the naturalistic accuracy here related to the overall
artistic effect? The painter himself does not seem to
have been bothered by the exaggerated size of the one
figure nor by the inaccuracy of the perspective
(although a little later, when he painted the group of
figures entitled “Poachers” he was so dissatisfied that
he cut up the picture into individual portraits). The
latter-day viewer is not disturbed by these inaccuracies,
either; they do not detract from his experience of the


picture as a work of art. Rather he accepts them as
part of the distortions of any close-up view, which here
actually enhance the effect of depth.

Thus, in this composition based on large silhouettes,
the role of the formal pattern, i.e., one purely artistic
element of form, is perfectly clear. Furthermore it is
quite strong enough to suffice of itself to make this
picture a work of art. And yet there still remains the
question raised earlier, which we have not yet an-
swered: What is the role of the “microstructures” in
such a work; how do they contribute to the overall
pictorial naturalism? This is by no means easy to say,
because where all the details are rendered with all but
“photographic” precision, the carefully painted detail
work is swallowed up in the total effect. Here we
should note the difference of the Leibl from the key
passage in the Hals portrait, where unprecedentedly
impressionistic technique is so conspicuously at odds
with the more traditional illusionistic naturalism. The
Leibl is so remarkable for the way the intellectual
ordering power of the picture as a whole is combined
with something like a higher power in the capturing
of visual detail. The result ought not to be so perfectly
homogeneous, but it is. (It is pertinent here to recall
the somewhat different example of David's Death of
The clarity is classic—a clarity beyond that of
classicist painting generally, much less cold and blood-
less, much more vivid. But beyond the clarity there
is a naturalism of detail which, because less literal than
Leibl's, demands less in the way of explanation to
account for the picture's perfection. Ingres' so-called
“classicist naturalism” ought also to be evoked in this
connection.) More to the point, notice in the Leibl
picture that one area is much more stylistically
rendered than the rest: the peasant girl's apron, espe-
cially the folds and pleats at the bottom. You nearly
always find especially carefully worked out details of
this sort in German painting of the Renaissance
period—in Dürer and Holbein, most notably.

The point may be trifling, but let us focus on it;
it may help us eventually to get down to the matter
of even less conspicuous details of brushwork, namely,
the differences, however, “trifling,” which do in fact
turn up on more or less microscopic examination. Is
it, in fact, a leading trait or characteristic of naturalistic
art that quantitative, mathematical consistency really
has nothing to do with it, because artistically speaking,
really tiny things do not exist in naturalistic painting,
or, at least, that in naturalistic art such matters are
not to be judged by the usual standards? Perhaps this
is one of the solutions to the question. In all naturalistic
art this microstructure, which influences the character
of the painting as a work of art, is something specifi-
cally unnaturalistic. From this point of view naturalis
tic works of art would be works of art like any others,
except insofar as they persuade us to search out tiny
deviations or departures from their models in nature.
Yet trying to grasp the artistic content of a naturalistic
work solely by isolating what is not naturalistic in it
must surely be unsatisfactory. No doubt naturalistic
works of art project “ideal” values, whether in terms
of symbolic significance or mere mood, but neither
individual oeuvres nor the art of such an epoch as, for
example, seventeenth-century Holland (as Seymour
Silve has pointed out) would be well served by such
an approach.

Something remains to be said about what inspires
the creation of naturalistic works. In various periods
of artistic development, inner vision was variably
combined with the power of perception. This power
of perception need not be a dominant element of
creativity, however it would be arbitrary and one-sided
to ignore it. Where a naturalistic work is concerned,
we should never ignore the experience of nature in
the life of the artist, which the picture revives. The


important thing, perhaps, is not so much the more or
less exact reproduction of nature, but the artist's ca-
pacity for making us share his experience with him.
To mention another famous case in point, consider
Brueghel's winter landscape with hunters trudging
through the snow (1565), in the Kunsthistorisches Mu-
seum in Vienna. It is only naturalistic, really, in com-
parison with all other landscape paintings of the six-
teenth century, but it is naturalistic in details like the
black blackbird against the winter twilight sky and the
snow-covered hills. It is also “naturalistic” in that
formal analysis alone cannot do justice to it; some
remotely comparable experience has to be brought to

What has made it so hard to be fair to naturalistic
art is this: that in it the material or content always
threatens to overpower our sense of the artist's mastery
of it. Ought not the painter to do something utterly
un- or non-naturalistic, give us lessons in drawing,
color, and composition? Naturalistic works of art
seemingly or actually distract attention from the artis-
tic accomplishment as such; but surely, so to distract
us, the artist must have managed some especially subtle
or skillful reshuffling between what we think of as the
“materials of art” and their “spiritualization.” Great
naturalistic works are perhaps the most mysterious of

In conclusion, we may attempt to give answers in
defense of naturalism to some questions raised earlier.
Is the naturalistic work somehow of a lower rank than
other kinds of art? No, and certainly not necessarily.
Where are we to look, in naturalistic works, for the
traditional criteria of a work of art? Well, by the way
they have been hidden away, or the viewer's eye
distracted from them. Does the artist's tendency to
naturalism impair his own imagination and his other
creative qualities or has it no bearing on them? The
latter, surely, not the former; indeed, it has been
claimed that there is no such thing as naturalism in
art; naturalism can go too far, as in excessive pursuit
of the trompe-l'oeil, but then so can every kind of art.
And one last question, the one that sums up all others:
How can an explicitly, extremely naturalistic work
nevertheless be a work of art in the full sense of the
term? The answers to the preceding questions may
have provided at least the beginning of an explanation.


Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology
of the Creative Eye
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1954; 1960).
Johannes Dobai, Die Kunsttheorien des 18. Johrhunderts in
(Vienna, in print). Max Dvořák, Idealismus und
Naturalismus in der gotischen Skulptur und Malerei

(Munich and Berlin, 1918). K. Fiedler, Gesammelte Schrif
ten über Kunst (Leipzig, 1896; 1971). Hanns-Conon von
der Gabelentz-Altenburg, “Zum Begriff 'Naturalismus'
in der bildenden Kunst, Versuch einer Klärung,” in
Anschauung und Deutung—Willy Kurth zum 80. Geburt-
(Berlin, 1964). Etienne Gilson, The A. W. Mellon Lec-
tures in Fine Arts (1955), Painting and Reality, 2nd ed.
(London and Princeton, 1957). Ernst Gombrich, Art and
Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Repre-
(New York, 1960). René Huyghe, Dialogue avec
le visible
(Paris, 1955). Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Die Leg-
ende vom Künstler: Ein geschichtlicher Versuch
1934). Erwin Panofsky, Idea. Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsge-
schichte der älteren Kunsttheorie.
Studien der Bibliothek
Warburg, Vol. 5 (Berlin, 1924); trans. Joseph Peake as Idea:
A Concept in Art Theory
(Los Angeles, 1968). Alois Riegl,
Die spätrömische Kunstindustrie (Vienna, 1901; 1927); idem,
Stilfragen (Berlin, 1893). Georg Schmidt, “Naturalismus und
Realismus. Ein Beitrag zur kunstgeschichtlichen Begriffs-
bildung,” Festschrift für Martin Heidegger zum siebzigsten
(Pfullingen, 1959). Seymour Slive, “Realism and
Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting,”
Daedalus, 91, 3 (Summer, 1962). Franz Wickhoff, Die
Wiener Genesis
(Vienna, 1895). Heinrich Wölfflin, Kunst-
geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Das Problem der Stilentwick-
lung in der neueren Kunst
(Munich, 1925); trans. as Princi-
ples of Art History, The Problem of the Development of Style
in Later Art
(reprint Gloucester, Mass., no date).


[See also Art and Play; Baroque in Literature; Form; Im-
pressionism; Mimesis; Nature; Romanticism; Style; Ut
pictura poesis.