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Life Sketches

by Robert Bateman

In his new memoir, Robert Bateman, the octogenarian painter, naturalist, and conservationist – who has received immense commercial success during his long artistic career – reflects on the entirety of his life’s work. Born in Toronto in 1930, into an upwardly mobile Scottish-Irish family, Bateman received unwavering parental love and approval. It was a Leave It to Beaver kind of existence: the young Bateman was free to explore the nature-rich ravine behind his Forest Hill home, spend Saturdays at the Royal Ontario Museum as a junior field naturalist, and enjoy summers at a family cottage in the Haliburton Highlands. Out of this supportive atmosphere, Bateman developed a strong and abiding interest in the natural world. He was also, from the start, a skilled and prolific illustrator.

Life-SketchesAmong his influences, Bateman cites Whistler, Sargent, and Wyeth, along with the movements of impressionism and post-expressionism. He credits Wyeth with leading him to a place that satisfied both his artistic bent and his “ecologist’s heart.” This place was where he could create, on the canvas, animals that resembled those in the wild. “I love paintings that look like photographs and photographs that look like paintings,” he writes, while elsewhere describing himself as “essentially a landscape painter who installs wildlife in my scenes because that’s what gives my heart a lift. I am a naturalist after all.” He wants viewers interacting with his work to “feel the very real possibility that the landscape and the creatures in that work are genuine, that the viewer has glimpsed a fleeting truth and that he or she is the richer for it.”

It’s partly these leanings, along with the practice of selling prints of his work in mass quantities, that have placed Bateman at odds with the Canadian visual-arts establishment. He has garnered phenomenal financial success, but no awards, and none of his pieces has found its way into the permanent collections of this country’s major art institutions. Bateman is defiant in the face of this dismissal, stating, in a 2013 CBC interview, “[B]ig-city galleries don’t like nice art. It has to have edge to it.” The public loves his work, and professionals scoop it up by the score: isn’t that enough, he seems to think, to prove he’s a legitimate artist?

Life Sketches is a handsome book, filled with crisp reproductions of drawings, sketches, and paintings from every decade of the artist’s life. Along with the expected birds and mice come rough etchings and line drawings of other subjects, such as family and friends, that are particularly striking. Unfortunately, the text makes many references to artworks that do not appear in the book.

Bateman himself proudly proclaims, “[M]y style has not changed since I was a teenager.” And into its ninth decade, the artist’s life is as it began: full of promise and curiosity and love for the natural world, with “no lingering doubts and no sleepless nights while I seconded guessed myself.” He is to be envied – and not just by artists – for such contentment and confidence.