My Art and My Life
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 13 Nov 1986, p. 114-124
Bateman, Robert, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Autobiographical. Mr. Bateman reminisces about his life and his art. He speaks of his development as an artist, and about specific paintings. Some remarks about protecting the environment, and diminishing cultures.
Date of Original
13 Nov 1986
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
"MY ART AND MY LIFE" Excerpts from an Audio Visual Presentation
Robert Bateman Wildlife Artist
Chairman: Nona Macdonald President


A move from Milton, Ontario, with its red-and-gold autumns and winter whites, to the salt spray of the misty British Columbia coast hasn't changed Robert Bateman's lifestyle or routine. He lives every day doing just what he loves to do most-paint the natural habitats around him.

He chose Saltspring Island, off the shore of Victoria, because of the varied landscapes and wilderness. It is also away from the hurlyburly, which does not mean that he and his wife Birgit and their three sons are stay-at-homes. They are globetrotters too, but when they return, it is to the privacy of their waterfront home in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Fifty years ago, Robert McLellan Bateman was a child in Toronto, filling sketchbooks of urban wildlife and taking trips with the Royal Ontario Museum's Junior Field Naturalists Club. He attended Forest Hill Collegiate and graduated from the University of Toronto with honours in geography. He taught high school in Thornhill and Burlington, Ontario, and in Nigeria under a Canadian government plan.

When he wasn't teaching art or geography, he was painting. His works now hang in galleries and collections around the world, including the palace of the late Princess Grace of Monaco.

His awards from art associations comprise a long list. Five universities have conferred honorary doctorates on him. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada. He is a recipient of the Medal of Honour of the World Wildlife

Fund, presented by His Royal Highness Prince Philip.

He is generous with his gifts to wildlife associations and charities. He donated an original painting to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. The painting was auctioned at the highest price of all donated works.

He is a past board member of the Art Gallery of Ontario and is on the board of the World Wildlife Fund of Canada.

His most recent books are TheArt ofRobertBateman and The World of Robert Bateman, published by Penguin Books.

Although Canada remains his major marketplace, the demand for Bateman paintings and and prints is growing in the United States, where he will be saluted by Washington's prestigious Smithsonian Institution from mid-January to mid-May in 1987. One hundred of his originals will be shown-a unique undertaking by the Smithsonian for a living artist who isn't even an American!

Today we have the great and good fortune to have something of a preview. We have our own living gallery on slides and our guide is the artist himself: Robert Bateman.

Robert Bateman

I was born on the 24th of May and I guess you can get the significance of that. If you tell that to an American audience or even a British audience, they don't know what you are talking about, but the Canadian audience knows what the 24th of May is, and I've always been an avid fan of Empire ever since I was born and had the good fortune to travel to a lot of the former colonies-Uganda Protectorate, Kenya Colony and other parts, in the Fifties, kind of at the twilight of Empire.

So it is certainly a great honour to be in front of this illustrious audience.

What I'm going to do today is tell you a little about my artistic background-how I got the way I am-and then take you on a couple of adventures that I have had in a couple of parts of the world, and then wind up at our new home in British Columbia.

Incidentally, I was touched when the pianist played Road to the Isles when I walked in. I haven't heard it that often, but, since I live in the Gulf Islands, I thought you did it just for me. (Slide presentation starts on screen)

I'm going to begin where I always begin, with a painting I did for my mother when I was twelve years old. I was in art education for twenty years and I've noticed that twelve years old is a turning point.

People often ask, "How long have you been interested in art and nature?" and my answer is: "I've always been interested in art and nature, ever since I was in kindergarten or earlier:"

But there is nothing special about that, because I bet all of you, and everyone I have known as a little kid liked art and nature. Most human beings, by the time they reach the age of twelve, grow up and go on to more mature things, and I have just as yet to reach that stage. I stuck with this "kid stuff" and it was a tough job, because I was born in 1930 and that put me a teenager in the Forties. Try to be a boy birdwatcher in the 1940s-it's not easy. I was a "closet birdwatcher."

Back to the picture I was mentioning. This one says 1942 and that means I must have been twelve when I did it. What amazes me is how much it's like what I do now. I think I could take this same composition and continue working on it without any major changes and end up with one of my typical paintings of today.

In fact, I think of myself as a twelve or thirteen-year-old kid. I don't think I have changed any of my basic standards in life, or what I want out of life, which is to get out there and have adventures in nature and put it down in paint.

I was always totally driven to paint. I never thought I would support myself with my art. That never was a goal, and it is still not a goal, believe it or not. I just paint for myself and I'm totally amazed that people want to pay money for my paintings nowadays.

This is one I did when I was eighteen. It was the last picture I did of natural history art, or wildlife art, whatever you want to call it. I don't really like that title but I keep getting labelled that way. With this painting, I went into capital "A' Art, or real art, or whatever other people want to call it.

I became an Impressionist. Then I became a Group of Seven groupie. I moved through various phases of art in my twenties and thirties. l didn't come back to the kind of thing I'm doing now until I was thirty-five.

I went to the University of Toronto and I took geography, not art. I didn't think you had to "take" art. I thought you just "did" art. You didn't have to go around taking art.

I still feel that taking courses has nothing to do with whether you are going to be an artist. I say that, having taught art courses for twenty years. They have all kinds of values, social and recreational and you can get some tips from them, but all I'm saying is that it doesn't directly relate to whether you are going to be an artist.

Anyway, I took geography and geology so that I could paint. I had worked as "Joe boy" in Algonquin Park and at the Wildlife Research Camp for three years. and I turned onto the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. I headed off in my canoe and finished those oil sketches just like Thomson did in earlier years. I was absolutely devoted to the "True North, strong and free" and the bold painting and all that kind of thing you are familiar with.

I wanted somebody to pay my way to go into the wilderness to paint. I knew if I took art nobody would pay my way to do that. So that is why I took geography and geology, and it worked. I got to the Arctic twice, Newfoundland once, and to Algonquin Park for another year. While I was at the university doing geography, I took art classes every Thursday night from Carl Schaeffer.

We did life drawing. I don't know why they call it life drawing; what they really mean is nudes. So I drew nudes every Thursday night for five years, which might partly explain why I didn't get a thing out of Playboy magazine and I hope I have a bit of a feeling for concave and convex!

But Schaeffer was a very strong influence on me and he had a lot of very strong opinions, as I do. One of the things he used to say was:

"If you can't paint it with the back end of a broom, it is not worth doing. Work from the shoulder, not the fingertips." His worst insult was "precious."

I hear through the grapevine that Carl Schaeffer is still alive,

that he has been following my career in recent years, and he thinks Bateman has gone all precious in recent years, which saddens me because I think I've got a lot of Schaeffer in my present work. He was a very important influence on me. What I'm after is not detail; I'm after form and rhythm and power-things I think Schaeffer had. I'm not saying I capture it, but that is my goal: a sense of form and rhythm and drama which is very evident in Schaeffer. I orchestrate all of my paints the way Schaeffer does: going from dark to light, light to dark, dark to light to dramatize and make the entire painting work.

I got more and more abstract as things went on. I became a Cubist. Picasso was one in his heyday. R. Yorke Wilson was becoming a prominent Canadian painter, and I always admired his work, so I moved into Cubism.

I got more and more abstract as the Abstract Expressionists came along.

I've a great liking for instability in composition. The most stable composition is like a pyramid or a triangle, like a Raphael Mother and Child and Joseph making a perfect triangle. Mona Lisa is a classic example, a boring composition to me because it looks alike a Chianti bottle. Da Vinci is great, but Mona Lisa is not one of my favourite compositions.

I like compositions that are a little bit tipped and unstable. It looks as is something is happening, and, of course, that is the way nature is, always in a state of transition. So I often pile things up at the top and have empty spaces at the bottom. I'm very conscious of the use of empty space which I got from the Oriental artists. The other thing I like is the ying and yang of light areas intruding into dark and of dark areas intruding into light.

An interesting thing happened in the fall of 1962. I didn't notice it then but I've picked up on the significance of it since. The history of Western art changed in the fall of 1962 and the turning point was an Andrew Wyeth show at the AlbrightKnox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

The Albright-Knox Gallery is a high-toned, beautiful little gallery, an avant-garde snob art gallery with all the Andy Warhols, Frank Stellas, Rosenbergs and Rosenquists. It has Picasso and Matisses and, if you haven't seen it, that's one reason for going to Bufffalo. I can't think of another one, but that is one reason for going to Buffalo and a very good reason. But, at any rate, they had the guts to have a show of Andrew Wyeth.

Now, just to refresh your memory; I'm sure all of you know this. Painting got more and more realistic until the end of the nineteenth century and that's when we had Victorian art. You can picture the wonderful preRaphaelite paintings that were absolutely beautifully done. They were kind of sweet and syrupy and schmaltzy. However, they were beautiful technical work.

Then along came the Impressionists. They sort of discovered paint-yummy little dabs of paint. And the paint got yummier and yummier through van Gogh.

Van Gogh was in love with yellow paint with a little thin blue line giving a sizzle. It makes your mouth water just to think about a van Gogh and a Gauguin. This lush paint!

As you move on through the history of twentieth-century art, paint became more and more "it" and subject matter became less and less until finally in the 1950s with the Abstract Impressionists, it was just paint. Subject matter was of zero interest.

Realism had not been shown in a proper Establishment contemporary art gallery in the twentieth century until the Albright-Knox Gallery had the guts to show Andrew Wyeth in the fall of 1962.

I was an abstract painter. I was at a folksong do with Gus Weisman, an old friend who teaches at the Ontario College of Art.

Gus asked me, "Have you been to see the Wyeth show in Buffalo?" And I said no. He said, "Well, you've got to go." And I said, "Why should I go?" He said, "He's a damn fine painter." So I went to see the Andrew Wyeth show and you can imagine what happened. An avid naturalist, I was thirty years old, on the executive of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists and the Ontario Naturalists Club.

I was involved in conservation, taking groups up doing leadership training-How can you tell a blue beech tree from an American beech and an elm tree from a maple. The flora of Algonquin Park are totally different from the forest flora of Halton County. And here I was trying to paint it in big gobs of yummy paint.

Well, when I saw Andrew Wyeth who cared that this was a field, that was a goldenrod, this was leather, that was canvas, such and such was a stone wall, I realized that the actual planet mattered to Wyeth, and he was accepted by the Art Establishment.

It was my Road to Damascus, that evening at the AlbrightKnox Gallery.

It took me two to three years to get out of my Abstract snobbery and finally evolve into the kind of thing I'm doing now. And so that's why I paint the way I paint.

To me, the most important thing in a piece of art is the thought. Technique is totally secondary. For example, the thought behind my portrayal of two lionesses was of two cannons, two howitzers lined up and ready to make the kill. They are loaded, they are aimed, all that awaits is that they be fired. Howitzers are designed to kill and so are lionesses. Using the allegory of the cannons, I emphasized the spines.

I always save my black and whites like the ace in a card game. I played my black and white only in the muscles, nowhere else did I use the full-fledged black and white, so you get the full impact going "boom-boom" like two cannons lined up like that.

I wanted the background to be very quiet and harmonizing, so it didn't compete with the lionesses and to show the sisterhood of lionesses. Of all the animal kingdom, the relationship between females among lionesses, is one of the most remarkable. As you know, a pride of lions is composed mostly of females. There is one male but he is kind of useless and he hardly ever does anything. The females do all the work.

They teach the young. They have very complex strategies that they work out.

There's a wonderful relationship between these ladies, and that is what I wanted to show, with them standing shoulder to shoulder. Two individuals. The faces are totally different.

In fact, I've been to Africa about seven times now, and I've got to know some of the lions fairly well. They all have different faces, just as different as the faces in this room.

I feel the same way about bald eagles. In fact, if we were only sensitive enough and tuned in enough to the world of nature, it may be that everything is very particular and very individual and very specific. Maybe every cricket has a different face, just as different as lions or people. We're just not tuned in.

But, if you start to look at nature that way, you can't say you have seen one tree and then seen them all. With more attention to the particularity and individuality, then I think we might treat nature a little differently, instead of doing a lot of things that we are doing to it.

I think art begins where nature ends and I totally reconstruct whatever I see to suit artistic purposes.

This is a picture of dead leaves, rabbits are easy to paint, and so are trilliums. Dead leaves are hard to paint.

I really think dead leaves are underrated in our society. People seem to pick on them all the time. In suburbia, they are next to sin. l think in fact they are worse than sin in suburbia. Sin is okay in surburbia, but dead leaves are not okay in suburbia. People rake them up. They burn them. They treat them badly. Dead leaves are really very beautiful. I think their main problem is that they are small. Everybody just steps on them and picks on them because they are small.

My point is: you really don't need to go to Niagara Falls or the Rocky Mountains or Hawaii to see beauty. You have it right outside your back door. You are stumbling over it all the time, if you are tuned in and sensitive enough to nature. The amazing thing about nature is that you can walk fifty feet and get a totally different viewpoint, a totally different image.

I maintain I am not a detail painter. People keep saying: "I love your work, it is so detailed."

That is not a compliment. It is not an insult either. It is like saying: "I love your sweater; it has so many stitches in it." It doesn't mean it's a great sweater. It has nothing to do with quality. The amount of detail has zero to do with quality.

I left teaching in 1976, when I was forty-six years old. I left it reluctantly, because I really did enjoy teaching, but I didn't have time to do it anymore. The big advantage of leaving teaching was that is opened up my calendar. Previously, the only time I could go anywhere was during July and August and that is the worst time of year to go to a lot of places.

Since then, we've had a kind of magic carpet. Various nature touring companies, particularly Lindblad Travel, have taken me on as a lecturer, resource person, whatever. I point out the birds, and give talks.

If you want to know what I think is the best place to go in the whole world for having adventures in nature, it would be Kenya.

But the Galapagos is wonderful and it's closer and doesn't cost quite so much. If you go to the Galapagos Islands, make sure that you bring your mask and snorkel and flippers; if you don't have any, borrow them. You don't even have to be able to swim. Just lie on top of the water and breathe easily because one of the most wonderful adventures you can have on the planet now is playing with fur seals in the Galapagos.

These fur seals sit around in great big flocks, bored out of their minds, with nothing but marine iguanas to look at. And when a boatload of tourists comes along, they just brighten up and, as soon as any tourists get in the water, they all jump in ready to play. There is no other creature like that on the planet; that is wild, born free, living free, of its own free will having fun with you. If you make like you are a fur seal and put your arms down your side and sort of roll your body around, they go crazy. They come racing at you, do loop the loops and everything.

Back to Canada... we took a very poignant side trip into some of the little islands off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island and visited an abandoned Indian village. This is a tragic part of Canada's history. The Europeans came in and virtually destroyed-sometimes on purpose, sometimes by mistake-the culture of the native peoples.

One of the greatest native people in the world was the West Coast Indians. The Haida were the most powerful nation. I happen to consider they were among the finest artists that ever lived-and I count Rembrandt, Picasso and the others. You can see a magnificent piece of Haida work in the Royal Ontario Museum. I think the great Haida carvings were some of the peaks of man's art, including Greek and Roman. Their culture is virtually gone now, being reborn a bit through young contemporary artists such as Bill Reid.

Last year I met the foremost expert on spotted owls in North America, a girl in charge of all the research for Washington state.

The spotted owl is probably the second-rarest bird in North America and needs large acreages of old-growth lowland forest, which is exactly what the paper companies such as Weyerhauser, MacMillan-Bloedel and B.C. Forest Products, need-big stuff that is easy to get.

It is probably going to go all the way to the Supreme Court to try to save some land for the spotted owl. As you probably know, the big forest interests in the Northwestern United States play hardball.

And here is another painting. This is one I was doing for the Smithsonian Institution exhibit, the biggest painting I ever did, six feet high and eight feet wide. An old cow elephant; they are the old, wise ones. I got sick of these wonderful macho males with their trophy tusks, so I showed an old grandmother with her tusks all worn off.

And, speaking of an old grandmother, one of the things on my conscience, having moved out West is that Mom still lives here in Toronto. I phone her every morning before eight o'clock when the rates are cheap from B.C. She is a fantastic lady, totally absorbed in everything. She is always phoning me up and telling me to listen to Peter Gzowski or Vicky Gabereau (CBC radio show hosts) or watch something on television, because she has a three-hour advantage. The reason I moved out West is that I always wanted to live on the ocean. I can go out in the boat on Christmas Day or New Year's Day, or go in swimming, if a I wear a wet suit, any day of the year. I really love the water.

It is a wonderful place to hike, and it is actually Mediterranean climate. So it is the same climate as California, the same kind of vegetation, but you can go'over a hill, three or four miles away, and you are into Alaskan type of vegetation.

If you ever go on the ferry from Vancouver Island to Schwartz Bay or, Vancouver to Victoria, the ferry boat goes right by. If you wave a handkerchief, I can see you from my house, and I'll wave back to you if it is a red handkerchief.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by James Laidlaw, stockbroker, McDermid St. Lawrence, and a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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My Art and My Life

Autobiographical. Mr. Bateman reminisces about his life and his art. He speaks of his development as an artist, and about specific paintings. Some remarks about protecting the environment, and diminishing cultures.