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Amateur Artists
The term "amateur", in this country at least, has come to have rather negative connotations in art as in most other areas. That's largely a development in this century however, perhaps as a result of the evolution of professional sports. In the 1800s and before, the term carried no stigma whatsoever. It described those who painted for their own fulfilment and pleasure with no idea toward making a living from their art. Women of the upper classes in particular, were almost expected to take up art and were tutored from childhood in drawing and painting, especially watercolour. Just as today women probably take most of the "snapshots" of daily family life, back then, it was expected of them to capture the daily vignettes of family friends and scenes from their travels. (Only men could be expected to "handle" a camera at that time.) It was accepted by both sexes that painting and drawing was an effective and virtuous way for women to sharpen and cultivate skills making them "accomplished" women.

Of course, once a woman married, it was also expected that she would give up her art in favour of the pursuit of "family matters". The term "amateur" is of French derivation and is not found in general use until the latter part of the 18th Century. Indeed, it may well have been coined to cast a respectable light upon those women who did not choose to give up their art when they gave up their maidenhood. But this euphemism for painting women was not broad enough to contain the likes of Impressionists Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt who insisted upon moving in the same circles as their male counterparts as professional artists.

Strangely enough however, a generation before, another French artist of the female persuasion might well be said to have been one of the first of her sex to count herself a professional. Her name was Rosa Bonheur. Born in 1822, her rural landscapes, painted with an almost photographic realism, were derived from life in the French provinces. Her father was a socialist drawing instructor and her interests seemed primarily centred upon farm animals which she studied from zoology books. No demure young easel painter, her canvases usually measured six to eight feet. She is often compared to the writer, George Sand, who adopted both a male name and dress. One of Bonheur's best paintings, Plowing in the Nivernais (1849), may well have been inspired by a line from Sand's The Devil's Pond. "But what caught my attention was a truly beautiful sight, a noble subject for a painter...a handsome young man was driving a magnificent team of oxen."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
16 April 1998

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