Robert Bateman, Canadian (1930 - )

A resident of Fulford Harbor, British Columbia, Robert Bateman became one of the foremost wildlife painters of the late 20th century. This statement is reinforced by the fact he was voted Favorite Artist by readers of "Wildlife Art" magazine in a millennium poll. He regards each work as a challenge, and is leary of becoming a formula painter, something that he feels is a plague on wildlife art.

He was born in Toronto, and was an artist and naturalist from his early days, although he did not sell any works until age 35. Bateman painted wildlife and wilderness in a representational style until his teens when he began to interpret nature by using a variety of contemporary styles including post-impressionism and abstract expressionism. In the early 1960s, he rediscovered realism and used it in depicting the world of nature. His first one-man show was in 1967.

In the 70s and early 80s, Batemans work began to receive critical acclaim and to attract an increased following. He has had many one-man museum shows throughout North America, including an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

In writing about his own work, Bateman said: . . .an artist is an artist, be he/she high, low or decorative. Artists are artists because they can't help it - they just are and they do art for the love of it or because they can't stop themselves. Their prime motives are not the market or what will the critics think or whether they are "High" or "Decorative" or "Tough" or "Easy". This is their piece and they do not need to defend it. The buck stops with them. Take it or leave it!

In my own case, from the age of twelve I was a serious artist. I never doubted I would always be an artist, but never expected to make my living at it. That is why I went into teaching as a meal-ticket so I could paint to please myself and not the market. I evolved through various phases in my 20s and 30's from Group of Seven (traditional Canadian subjects/style) to abstract expressionism, always depicting, even in the abstracts, nature and wilderness.

In the mid-60's (in my mid-30's) I moved into my present style because of my reverence for the particularity of every square inch of the biosphere. I couldn't show biological specificity in general globs of paint. I didn't sell anything until I was 35 and I was a full-time high school teacher until I was 46.

Oddly enough, the only two critical reviews of any merit came from the American press. They were by the art critics of the "Washington Post" and the "San Francisco Chronicle". They were both pans, but handled with balance and intelligence. The "Post" critic said that my show at the Smithsonian was too grand and glorious and my paintings were also too glorious (Tough Art vs. Easy Art). He said: "Where is the dark underbelly of nature? The death, the dirt, the rotten weather?".

He made a very good point! I do, however, sometimes paint death ("Vulture and Wildebeest", "Polar Bear Skull", "Fall - Ovenbird"), dirt ("Penguins and Whale Bones") and rotten weather ("Osprey in the Rain"), but the curator, who was a botanist, curated all of my "tough" pieces out of the show despite my protests.

The "Chronicle" critic also praised my style, technique and concepts but at the end said ". . .however, this is not real art. Bateman's work is mere illustration." He went on to say that real art was about itself, whereas illustration is about something else.

To me, illustration has a clear meaning. It is when the idea comes from outside the artist, as an assignment. For example, a book publisher asks N. C. Wyeth to illustrate Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" or Pope Julius II asks Michelangelo to depict the story of creation on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Pure, non-objective painting, I presume, would be "real" art because it is about itself. And so a furniture store abstract that matches your drapes is real art and Da Vinci's "Last Supper" is a mere illustration. It is the word "mere" that I find troubling.

When one thinks of the real problems facing the planet and, indeed, civilization, at the end of the 20th century, the problem of whether art critics appreciate this form of art or that form of art or me seems so minuscule as to be virtually invisible. Being rebuffed by one's peers in the art world is, of course, hurtful, but that has always happened and always will and it really doesn't matter. It is still fun to discuss and dismember. . . I do it myself, as you may have noticed.

Bateman has exhibited in Canada, the United States and Great Britain. His work is in many public and private collections, including several art museums. He was commissioned by the Governor General of Canada to do a painting as the wedding gift for HRH The Prince Charles from the people of Canada. His work is also included in the collections HRH The Prince Philip, the late Princess Grace of Monaco and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Two books of his art, The Art of Robert Bateman and The World of Robert Bateman, have also been published.

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