“I don’t care for the great centuries. All I care about is life, struggle, intensity.” — Emile Zola

Emile Zola was a 19th-century French author, renowned for writing in a “naturalistic” style. His novels depicted the nitty-gritty details of everyday life, warts and all.

He rejected the Romantic themes of authors like Alexandre Dumas or Victor Hugo, and rather focused on the mundane parts of existence. No lofty ideas. No larger than life characters. No sublime beauty.

Instead, he described struggles. His works examined normal people facing existential problems. There was no sugar-coating. He wanted to portray reality as it really was.

Dark. Raw. Real.

Naturalists looked at how circumstances, emotions, and forces of nature shape human lives. For them, these outside constraints are what drives a person’s destiny.

“Man is not alone. He lives in society, in a social condition; and consequently, for us novelists, this social condition unceasingly modifies the phenomena. Indeed our great study is just there, in the reciprocal effect of society on the individual and the individual on society.” — Emile Zola

While many elements of the thinking of writers like Zola are similar to existentialism, there is one huge difference. Whereas philosophers like Sartre or Camus believed people are free to choose (despite their circumstances), naturalists saw life as pretty much fixed.

There is no free will. Only determinism. Can’t do much about it.

Showing life how it really is

Naturalism wasn’t only reflected in literature. In the 19th century, it pervaded different aspects of society. Philosophy. Theater. And of course, painting.

One aim of naturalist painters was depicting people in their natural and social environments. As noted by Rebecca Seiferle, naturalism was about incorporating the subject into the context.

“Naturalism is often equated with Realism, but it was only defined some decades later — experiencing its heyday during the 1870–80s — and was more concerned than the older movement with a hyperreal visual compositional precision; and with integrating the human figure into an enveloping landscape or scenario.”–Rebecca Seiferle

Naturalist painters depicted normal people in their everyday activities. Often, they focused on the lower, working classes. Their aim was to capture the scene in a hyper-realistic manner, with all the imperfections in tow.

In this way, these painters put on canvas the same types of ideas writers like Zola put on paper with their pens.

Coming across a painting that reflects the pain of everyday reality

Art is meant to invoke emotions. Whoever is looking at a painting should feel something. This feeling is deeply personal, and can be quite different from the painter’s original aim.

My most powerful encounter with naturalism dates from a while back. As I was exploring the Fin de Siecle (end of the 19th century) exhibit at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, I came across a painting.

The way it was set up harkened back to the Middle Ages. It was a triptych, a panel painting divided up into three sections which can be folded into each other.

On the painting, you could see three scenes. One taking place in the morning, one at lunch time, and one in the evening.

It was the story of a working class family. On the left, they were walking to work. In the middle, they were having lunch, their only break in the day. On the right, they were depicted on their walk back home.

For me, the most striking part was how well the painting conveyed the feelings of pain and resignation. The somber colors. The slumping postures. The dejected faces.

Look at the faces of the family walking in the morning on their way to work. The precariousness jumps at you straight away. These were chalk sellers, and made a living by walking around all day. It was hard work for very little money.

Their only break was at mid-day, when the entire family gathered for lunch.

The scene reminded me of the story of Sisyphus, with one crucial difference. Whereas Albert Camus made him smile despite his predicament, Frederic’s characters stay somber and dejected. There is no bright spot in their fate.

Art that speaks to you across the ages

Leon Frederic was a Belgian artist who was born in 1856 and died in 1940. Throughout his lifetime, he saw enormous changes take place.

Belgium was a country that rapidly industrialized. Fueled by the coal mines in the country’s south, a string of factories rose up all around. Whether gathering the coal, creating widgets, or struggling to make a living in other ways, life was tough for the vast majority of the population.

The average worker worked long hours for very little pay. Kids as little as 5 years old would often spend as much as 14 hours a day in incredibly dangerous positions.

There was no safety net. You got injured? That meant losing your job.

Frederic tried capturing this societal turmoil in his paintings. Moving through realist, naturalist, and symbolist stages, and combining it with inspiration from Old Flemish Masters, his artwork reflected the struggle of his day and age.

Unless you are a fanatic of 19th century French and Belgian art, you probably never heard of Leon Frederic before, or seen any of his work. That’s a shame. I find his early paintings incredibly powerful.

His “Chalk Sellers” is a masterpiece of emotion. It brilliantly captures the human condition.

The family depicted in the painting lived in harsh everyday conditions. It never changed. Day in and day out, it was always the same. What’s worse, these people were born and probably died in the same conditions.

While Frederic’s artwork depicts a scene from the 19th century, the lessons are universal. We are lucky that most of us don’t have to live through these types of horrible conditions, where even the smallest kids had to work from dusk ‘til dawn.

However, this eternal circularity of pain is ever-present in our age as well. It might be a different type of pain, but it is there nevertheless. For most people, it is impossible to escape.

Looking at this painting, you are reminded of the human condition. Life is hard, and full of suffering. Outside circumstances give it shape, and you can’t escape their influence.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.
Credit: 1; Photo found in Wikimedia Commons

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