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Friday, December 16, 2016

Amateur Artists

This reminds me of my own first attempt at presidential portraiture--President Eisenhower.
The noted American writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, "Every artist was once an amateur." I would only add to that, "Every such amateur is an artist." Having said that, I used to remind my students "Of course, there are artists and then there are ARTISTS."` I'm sure the Obamas would get a hearty laugh from the amateur attempt at presidential portraiture (above), but in all fairness, there's no doubt as to whom is being portrayed; and it is an honestly expressive effort. The latter is an almost universal trait among amateur artists, and one celebrated quite often across this country through art shows limited only to amateur artists, such as that of the Springer Cultural Center's annual Town & Country County Amateur Art Show, in Champaign, Illinois (below).

There should be a sign: "Don't laugh, where's YOUR painting?"
The term "amateur" is of French derivation and a relatively recent one at that, dating back only to sometime during the 1700s. Before that, unless you were a serious student or apprentice, you were not considered an artist. Then women began to paint in the realm of what we might refer to today as a "hobby." There work was, of course, often outstanding, in some cases nearly on a par with that of men. The term "artist" thus gained a modifier signifying the work of female hobbyists. Eventually the term came to include men of similar intent. The Fair Amateur (below), by the British (professional) genre artist, Abraham Solomon, depicts this cultural development.

The Fair Amateur, 1862, Abraham Solomon
In large part, two factors separate the work of amateur painters from that of professionals. There is the obvious element of painterly skill, derived from both instruction and experience. Victorian ladies who chose to paint, as depicted by Solomon, had to fight for inclusion in the 19th-century, male-dominated academic world. Beyond that, they often had to fight family cultural stereotypes as to the appropriate outlet for their creative efforts--experience. The other factor involved that of content, which continues to be an element separating amateurs and professionals today. A hundred years ago though, this division had to do mostly with gender--women seldom painted nudes, and never male nudes. Portraits were acceptable, though usually of women and children. Landscapes, still-lifes, and genre subjects were okay too. Murals, history painting, eroticism, combat art, and commercial illustration (other than ladies' fashions) were still the province of professional male artists. Today, this division seldom exists, yet there still remains a dichotomy of amateur and professional content as illustrated below.

Two beach scenes, both reasonably skilled in execution.
One is amateur, one professional. Can you tell which is which?
A third differentiation between the work of amateur and professional artists has long been noticeable, though today it is fading somewhat. In the past, virtually all amateurs (male or female) chose a fairly realistic style as to their paintings. However, take a look at the work of some well-know celebrity artists below. There is little or no similarity as to style, with almost half of those represented rejecting realism completely. Only the oldest of the group (Sinatra and Prince Charles) seem to have made any pretext toward natural realism in their landscapes. On a whole different level, the expressive realism of Joni Mitchell's self-portrait is, by far, the best of the lot.

Among amateurs today, styles vary tremendously.
Looking back at some of the more well-known amateur artists of the past, we don't see this wide range of styles. In looking at the work by presidents, a prime minister, and a murderous despot, without exception, they all held Realism as their ultimate stylistic goal. In doing so, all were limited to a great degree as to their expression of creativity and imagination.

In the unlikely event you should happen upon work by any of
these artists while browsing a local garage sale...BUY it!


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