Naturalism Vs. Realism in Art

By Alice Cuninghame ; Updated September 15, 2017
Realism and naturalism flourished in the second half of the 19th century.

Realism and naturalism are both largely 19th century artistic movements, although Naturalism's roots stretched back several centuries. Emerging around mid-century in France, they later spread through Europe and America. Realism and naturalism were responses to romanticism, and its concentration on the portrayal of emotions. Realism and naturalism, by contrast, aimed to portray realistic, accurate views of life and landscapes. While the two movements had similar values, there are some key differences in their approach.

Realist Values

Realism was an attempt to portray the lives of ordinary people and their environments. Romantic and Renaissance painters had tended to focus on idealized subjects and situations. Realists painted people as they were, at work or at play. They aimed to observe and then capture faithfully the scene they were painting, rather than adding a layer of interpretation. The movement was partly a response to the social change brought about by the Industrial Revolution. According to Art Encyclopaedia, they often sought to depict subject matter that many in the establishment found uncomfortable, including gritty street scenes, nudity and sex.

Naturalist Values

The naturalists aimed to paint natural life as accurately as possible. Like the realists, they aim to show reality rather than interpretation. Naturalist paintings are very detailed, as details increased the accuracy of the painting. Naturalists were heavily influenced by Darwinian ideas about the strength of nature, and the lack of ability of humans to combat the forces of nature. Like realism, naturalism was partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and their Darwinian attitudes reflected this, according to Michael Arnold Art. They rejected contemporary ideas that technology could overcome nature.

Differences in Approach

The two movements have similar core values. They both aim to show things as they actually are, rather than to interpret subject matter. They tend to focus on different subject matter, with naturalists concentrating mostly on landscape painting, while realists more often depict people. Naturalists also work from a scientific view of the world, with human beings being seen as part of nature and subject to its forces. Realists see human experience as more important.

Schools and Forms

Distinct groups of realist and naturalist artists grew into schools, both in France and elsewhere. The most famous naturalist school was in Barbizon in France, where artists gathered to paint the French countryside. Realism began in Paris and remained more urban. Over time, both realism and naturalism influenced other artistic movements. Impressionism was heavily influenced by realism and naturalism and shared their use of ordinary people and places as subject matter.

About the Author

Alice Cuninghame gained a B.A. in history and politics before going on to work in the public sector for several years, writing numerous reports and political briefings. She is currently studying for an M.A. in creative writing while working as a freelance writer and editor.