Friday 30 June 2017

Living Room

She is the subject of many of Alex Colville's paintings:  To Prince Edward Island, Woman at Clothesline, Woman on Ramp, Stove, Nude and Dummy, Family and Rainstorm, Departure and Woman Carrying Canoe, to name a few.  Rhoda Wright was the love of Alex Colville's life.  They were married for 70 years and raised four children.

It is appropriate then that I end a month of blogging about Alex Colville with another painting featuring his wife, Living Room.  The ease of their relationship is evident in Alex's artwork.  In Living Room, the couple sits side by side, Alex in his chair, Rhoda at the piano, the dog in between them.  It is like there is no need for words.  They know each other's thoughts.  Rhoda passed away in 2012 and Alex followed only six months later, united forever.

Thursday 29 June 2017

Prince Henry Refueling in Corsica

"I felt my job was simply to report.  I tried very hard to do the best stuff I could do as a war artist.  I thought at least because no one was shooting at me, I could try and do reasonably good work." 
(Alex Colville)

A sailor trains his telescope on the Canadian ship Prince Henry, stationed in the Mediterranean off the coast of Corsica.  Azure waters fill the foreground; partially bare foothills fill the background.

In 1942, artist Alex Colville enlisted in the Canadian Army and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. Two years later, he accepted an appointment as an official war artist, travelling to Yorkshire, the Netherlands, northern Germany and the Mediterranean.  It was while stationed at the latter that he painted the Canadian ship Prince Henry, in the process of refueling at the French island of Corsica.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Tragic Landscape

Tragic Landscape circa 1945 courtesy

Alex Colville's Tragic Landscape features a German soldier lying dead in a farmer's field.  A cow, indifferent to his plight, is walking away.  A farmhouse sits in the background.  Menacing clouds hover overhead.  Tragic Landscape contrasts the terror of war and the peace of nature.  

Alex Colville was an official war artist for Canada during the Second World War.  Stationed in Deventer, Holland, he came upon a German paratrooper of lying face up in a farmer's field.  "He was about twenty," explained the Canadian painter.  "They [the Germans] would fight right to the very end.  They had put up a tremendous fight until they were all killed."  Tragic Landscape hangs in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

German soldier from the Luftwaffe in Holland courtesy

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Low Tide

A lady reclines on the deck of a boat, a hat covering her face to block out the sun.  Her husband, knee deep in water, appears to be adjusting the anchor.  In the background stretches a peninsula of sand, partially covered in reeds.  Low Tide, painted in 1987 by Alex Colville, is somewhere in Nova Scotia, where he lived much of his life.  The painting features a woman who is most likely his wife, Rhoda.  The scene is one of ease:  the tide eases in and out.  The husband and wife demonstrate a sense of ease with their relationship.  There is no sense of urgency.  They could stay there forever.

Monday 26 June 2017

French Cross

"French Cross is a sombre reminder of past animosity between French and English in Canada, and of the sufferings of ordinary people who happen to be caught in national or international power plays."(Alan Reynolds)

Alex Colville's painting French Cross is both peaceful and menacing.  The Christian cross represents the hope of Jesusand His resurrection while the grey clouds might indicate a coming storm.  Grand Pre, or Grand Prairie, is where the Acadians erected dykes to prevent the sea from encroaching on their farmlands.

French Cross features a monument erected in 1924 at Grand Pre, Nova Scotia to honour the Acadians (French population) deported to the Thirteen Colonies by the British, known as Le Grand Derangement.     In 1755, the army of King George II gathered the men of the area together at a church, burned their houses and barns, and forced them onto ships heading south. (  The British population was more established in the Thirteen Colonies at the time and therefore the King reasoned that the French would pose less of a threat there then in Nova Scotia.  The expulsion ejected the French from their land, some of whom had been there since 1604 when Acadia was founded.

"French Cross is a sombre reminder of past animosity between French and English in Canada, and of the sufferings of ordinary people who happen to be caught in national or international power plays."  But at the same time, the Cross reminds us that the future brings hope. While the Acadians were persecuted, their history and culture survive.  While most of us are familiar with the Acadians (Cajuns) of New Orleans, not all of the Acadians got on the ships heading south. Some hid in the forests of New Brunswick.  That is why today, New Brunswick retains a significant French population (about a third) and is officially bilingual.  "In spite of their struggles, they are not 'separatist'."(  The Acadians remain an integral part of Canada's culture, honoured by both Alex Colville's painting and Henry Wadworth Longfellow's poem, Evangeline.

Sunday 25 June 2017

The River Spree

While living in Berlin, Germany, Alex Colville partiicpated in the Kunstlerprogramm, a one year grant offered to artists in film, literature or the visual arts which started in 1963.  Alex Colville received the grant in 1971, at which time he painted at least two works, Berlin Bus ( and The River Spree.  The Spree is the river on which the original Berlin centre was built.  Spanning 400 kilometres, it runs through Saxony, Brandenburg, Berlin and the Czech Republic.  Tourists taking cruises on the River Spree might pass by the Berlin Cathedral, the Reichstag and the Schloss Charlottenburg.  Museum Island, which includes a collection of five museums, is located in the middle of the Spree.

Bode Museum on Museum Island in the River Spree courtesy

Saturday 24 June 2017


A skater glides across the ice, her muscled leg outstretched parallel to the ice, her hands tucked behind her back.  Her other skate is planted firmly on the ice which already has many lines carved into its surface.  In the background appears to be a cliff with a small, frozen waterfall.

"All is grace, serenity and composure," says Helen Dow, who wrote the book The Magic Realism of Alex Colville.  She adds:  "This is a picture of a human being who has come to grips with reality." Yet, the skater is skating away from the viewer, not towards the viewer.

Completed in 1964, Colville's painting depicts a typical Canadian pastime, ice skating.  The painter's wife, who served often as his subject, was an avid cyclist, swimmer and skater.

Friday 23 June 2017

Dog and Groom

"Our life has consisted a procession of pets.  He had an especially close relationship with his dogs.  Walking and grooming his dog were parts of Colville's daily routine."

Alex Colville kneels in front of the fireplace as he painstakingly grooms his dog, perhaps removing a flea from his fur.  The painter and his pug appear to have known each other forever.  As the dog waits patiently, he looks away from his owner with innocent eyes. Colville had "a peculiar idea of dogs.   They are sentient but incapable of evil." (Andrew Hunter, Ontario Art Gallery Curator)  That innocence must have been refreshing to Colville who witnessed (and sketched as a war artist) the horror of Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp.  As Colville's only daughter Anne Kitz said:  "He was a pragmatist and not inclined to think that people were inherently good.  He believed evil existed."

Thursday 22 June 2017


When I googled "heron" it said that the species most prevalent in Canada is the Great Blue Heron, which can be found from Nova Scotia to Alberta, with a large concentration in Prince Edward Island, the great blue heron capital of North America.  It stands anywhere from 3.2 to 4.5 feet tall and its wings span spreads anywhere from 5.5 to 6.6 feet.  The great blue heron, a colonial nester, builds stick nests, 1 metre in diameter, in the treetops.  The largest known colony of nests in P.E.I. was recorded at 507 in 1997.  The large bird arrives in Canada in the late March and departs in the late fall.  Great blue herons are expert fishers, swallowing their prey whole.  They live on average 15 years.

Alex Colville's Heron circa 1977 courtesy

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Moon and Cow

Hey diddle, diddle
The cat and fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed 
To see such sport.
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
(The Cow Jumped over the Moon)

Moon and Cow — painting by Alex Colville

Moon and Cow, with the moonlit night and the resting cow, evokes a feeling of peacefulness.  I think of the nursery rhyme, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon.  I think of the steady rhythm of the poem and the innocence of a young child.

On the other hand, in 1963, when Alex Colville completed the painting, the world was in the throes of the Cold War.  Children hovered under their desks during atomic bomb drills.  The hands of the superpower leaders hovered over the nuclear "button".  Mercifully, President John F. Kennedy had recently averted disaster with the diplomacy he displayed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Only two years before however, President Kennedy had promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  And while the world sat on the precipice of World War III, which would have put us back into the stone age, the two superpowers were working feverishly behind the scenes to forge ahead and put a man on the moon.  The Space Race refocussed their attention.  It would be only six years later that 600 million spectators would watch in hushed silence as Neil Armstrong placed his boot on the moon's dusty surface and declared:  "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Three Horses

Unlike Alex Colville's Horse and Train (1954) or Church and Horse (1964), which evoke a sense of urgency and unease, Three Horses (1946), evokes a feeling of peace and tranquility.  Three horses, one brown, one rust-coloured and one grey, gather in a field of hay.  A barn sits in the background.  White clouds fill the sky.  It seems like all is well with the world.

Three Horses comes on the tail end of the Second World War.  Perhaps Alex Colville, after coming off the battlefield where he sketched scenes of horror and devastation, is content to just sit in a farmer's field and sketch horses.  He surrounded himself with animals all of his life, a source of companionship.  "Colville viewed animals as essentially innocent -- incapable of malice unless conditioned so by humans." (

Monday 19 June 2017

Ocean Limited

Alex Colville's Ocean Limited, circa 1962, features a train that runs between Montreal and Halifax through Sackville.  While Colville's famous 1953 painting includes a horse facing a train, this piece includes a man facing a train, only this time the two are not on a direct collision course.  The man, dressed in a trench coat and hat, appears to be deep in thought.

Colville's painting harkens back to a bygone era when trains were part of Canada's landscape.  Rather than driving, most people rode the train for long distance trips.  Before transport trucks, everything was shipped by rail.  Even hobos rode the rails during the Great Depression.  By the 1960's, passenger rail travel was in decline due to the increase in automobile and air traffic.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Stop for Cows

Alex Colville's Stop for Cows, circa 1967, features a young woman in shorts and a sleeveless top ushering a herd of jersey cows along the road.  Farmland stretches on either side.  In the background is a string of mountains, likely the Appalachians of Nova Scotia.  The cows are not in a hurry; it harkens back to a slower pace of life.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie Leap Year in which Amy Adams character ushers a handful of cattle off the road in order that her and her chauffeur may continue on their journey to Dublin.  All seems well with the world until Amy looks down at her designer shoe and discovers it's covered in manure.

Artwork Stop for Cows by Alex Colville

Saturday 17 June 2017

Woman Carrying Canoe

A woman rests a canoe casually on her shoulders.  The ankle deep water is calm and serene.  A narrow beach sits to the right and a cliff fills the background.  The woman is likely Alex Colville's wife and the beach is likely one in Nova Scotia where they lived.

The canoe is an integral part of Canadian history.  Derived from the Carib word "kenu" or dugout, the canoe was used by the Natives in North America.  The French fur traders who arrived in Canada in the 1600's used the canoe to cross streams and rivers as they portaged the country.  There are two types of canoes, the K-boat or kayak, intended for one passenger, and the C-boat or Canadian, intended for two passengers.  The C-boat is about 17 feet long and each passenger uses a paddle with a single blade to move the canoe.

Friday 16 June 2017


Alex Colville's Stove, circa 1988, shows a woman stooping over her cook stove while her dog watches.  This painting harkens back to the days of the old cook stoves.  They took a long time to heat up but once they were hot, they were piping hot.  As a little girl my aunt mistakenly leaned up against the back of her mother's stove and got second degree burns.

The old cookstove had many compartments.  In Colville's painting the woman has opened the top right compartment.  Was that the oven used for baking bread?  I remember when my sister first got married she and her husband bought a house circa 1962 with all of the original appliances and furniture.  The cook stove also had many compartments.  One of the compartments was for the wood or coal used to heat the stove (my sister's, however, was electric).

Thursday 15 June 2017

Couple on Beach

Alex Colville's Couple on Beach is likely a painting of him and his wife sun bathing in Nova Scotia. The wife lays on her side, her hat covering her face.  The husband, squatting next to her, appears to be looking out towards the horizon.  The rippled surface of the water meets the blue sky, scudded with puffy white clouds.

While this scene likely takes place in Nova Scotia in 1957, because we can't see the faces, this could be any couple.  It could be my husband and I on our honeymoon in British Columbia in 1992.  We packed a picnic lunch and headed to Okanagan Lake where we sunbathed.  We took a dip in the lake. In our newlywed frame of mind, we were oblivious of everyone else.  We didn't realize that Ogopogo was lurking in the lake's depths.  It was only later that Rob discovered his ring was missing. But we refused to let it spoil our glorious day.  

Note:  While Rob and I are about to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary this summer, Alex and Rhoda Colville were happily married for 70 years!

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Seven Crows

"One crow, sorrow
Two crows joy
Three crows a letter
Four crows a boy
Five crows silver
Six crows gold
Seven crows a story never to be told."
(William Butler Yeats)

Alex Colville based his 1980 painting Seven Crows on the Yeats poem.  In literature, crows can act as a harbinger of death.  Seven crows lurk over a field by the water as clouds hover overhead.  The birds hang in the air as the unspoken tension hangs in the picture.  Something is about to happen.  Perhaps it's a thunderstorm, perhaps much more.  It's "a story never to be told".  

Tuesday 13 June 2017

Church and Horse

"More than any other artist in Canada, Colville's images permeate both our psyche and our everyday life." (Toronto Star)

Alex Colville's Church and Horse contrasts a peaceful white-clapboard church with a spooked black horse.  The sanctuary of the church is contrasted with the dangers of the outside world.  A foreboding sky hovers over the church and horse.  The gate remains open, ready for the horse to bolt right through it.

Painted in 1964, "JFK's funeral is the subtext for Church and Horse, a painting that I never understood until this encounter.  We watch that big black riderless horse in the funeral procession...then meet him again, galloping madly through Colville's painting." (

No one will forget the image of little John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's coffin; of the veiled widow Jacqueline, clasping each of her child's hands; of Caroline Kennedy sneaking a hand under the American flag, as if to touch her father one last time; of the riderless horse clip clopping behind the slain President's coffin as it made its way to Arlington Cemetery.  Colville's horse conveys some of the public's unease felt in the turbulent months after JFK's assassination (

Monday 12 June 2017

Dog and Priest

Alex Colville's painting Dog and Priest shows a dog looking out for his master.  Both dog and priest have dark coats.  Both dog and master have collars, although the priest's is obscured by the dog's.  The priest is reclining while the dog is sitting up, on the alert.  Priests are known for the faith in God while dogs demonstrate faith in their masters.

Dog and Priest, painted in 1978, represents a bygone era.  At one time, Roman Catholic priests would have been commonplace in Canada, especially the Maritimes with its large ethnic Irish population.  However, today, the number of priests is steadily declining.  The slower pace of life, something much of Canada has lost, is indicative of the Maritimes.

Sunday 11 June 2017


A woman in a white dress stands in a telephone booth on a jetty as a cargo ship pulls out to sea.  Ripples cover the water; clouds dot the sky.  Departure, circa 1962, is yet another example of Alex Colville's preoccupation with the ordinary.

Just like the soldier saying goodbye to his girlfriend/wife, this may be a scene where a couple is about to endure a long separation.  During the Second World War, this scene would have played itself out many times.  For someone living in Nova Scotia like Colville, where the army and navy often deployed, this would have been a common event.

Saturday 10 June 2017

To Prince Edward Island

A woman, facing the camera, holds a pair of binoculars as she heads To Prince Edward Island aboard a ferry.  A lifeboat hangs behind her.  Other than a string of puffy clouds above the horizon, the sky is a clear blue.

While many of Colville's paintings exhibit some degree of anxiety or tension, To Prince Edward Island has a serenity about it.  It is no surprise that the painting remains one of Colville's most loved works.  And Prince Edward Island remains one of the most popular destinations for both Canadians and foreigners.  Its red sand beaches, lobster dinners and friendly charm are irresistible.  A visit to Prince Edward Island, I imagine, takes one back to a simpler time.  The pace is slower and the people are friendlier.  Painted in 1965, on the heals of the Cuban Missile Crisis (perhaps the purpose of the binoculars trained on the viewer) such a painting would be a welcome respite from the Cold War angst.

Friday 9 June 2017

Family and Rainstorm

I'll never forget the summers of my childhood in Grand Bend, Ontario.  My Mom, my sisters (and later my brother) and I would spend the day at the beach.  Sometimes, in late afternoon, dark clouds would blow in and before we knew it, a thunderstorm would hit.  We would pack up our towels and head for cover. We would sit in our mobile home and watch the fireworks display.  There's nothing like a thunderstorm on the lake.  It was more magnificent than anything you would witness on land.

Alex Colville's Family and Rainstorm reminds me of those thunderstorms, only this time set in Nova Scotia rather than Southern Ontario.  Dark clouds hovering over the water threaten to burst open at any moment.  A mother holds the car door open for her son and daughter as they climb inside.   The children, likely drained from a day of sun and sand, are ready to collapse.  The mother is likely dreaming of a warm bath to clean off the sand that clings to her body.  I see visions of the car, only minutes later, driving down the road, its wipers working full speed, its occupants relieved to be inside.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Milk Truck

"Toronto passed a law in the 1950's banning milk delivery before 7 am to prevent the disturbance of Torontonian's sleep."

Alex Colville's painting Milk Truck, circa 1959, is a tribute to the small town Maritimes.  A Mercury truck filled with crates of milk (and a dog) and with a boy hanging off of it ready to deliver the goods, drives down the main street of a small town.  In the background is a Simpsons Catalogue Store (a small town wouldn't have merited a full department store).  At the end of the street and the edge of the picture is the water, presumably the Atlantic.

But the milk truck wasn't just a part of Maritime history, but Canadian history.  I remember the milk truck that came down our street every day in Hamilton, Ontario.  I remember the milk box that was built into the side of our bungalow.  I remember the plastic jugs that the milk came in. Our neighbour, Mrs. Pellizari, still ordered her milk in glass bottles.

The milk truck was not always the mode of transportation for milkmen in Canada.  According to The Globe and Mail, "Most Canadians had milk, cream, butter, eggs, bread and even meat delivered -- and all by horse drawn wagon, a vehicle that some Toronto milkmen used until the late 1950's."  My Mom, who grew up in Dunbarton, 18 miles east of Toronto, remembers the horse drawn milk carts.  The horses knew the routes so well that they could continue without instruction; at a dead end street they could be counted on to turn around.

By the early 1960's, electric trucks had replaced horsedrawn wagons, but they came with their own set of problems.  They struggled in the cold and needed a pick up truck to climb steep hills.  The vehicle's rooftop refrigeration system often leaked, raining down on the driver.  Its small oil stove did little to keep the milkman warm.

Modern gas trucks soon followed with a proper refrigeration unit.  You would think that the motorized trucks would be much louder than the wagons.  However, it wasn't the rumbling of the truck motor that got the milkmen into trouble but the clinking of the milk bottles.  Toronto passed a law in the 1950's banning milk delivery before 7 am to prevent the disturbance of Torontonian's sleep.  In 1944, Ella Mae Morse had a top ten hit titled Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet.

The death of the milkman and the milk truck came with the advent of modern refrigerators and the proliference of automobiles.  People could keep their milk fresh much longer at home.  They could drive themselves to the store to buy more.  The milk truck, as its predecessor the horse, was put out to pasture.

Wednesday 7 June 2017


"Reproduced in magazines and books, on posters and postcards and television [Colville's paintings] have become icons of Canadianism, the visual expression of our spirit." (Fulford)

As Hellen Dow states:  "Alex Colville celebrates the ordinary."  In Canada, what could be more ordinary than a fishing trip?  My son Thomas and his friend Braden just came home from a fishing trip in French River.   My Grandad Stroud used to make an annual fishing trip to French River.  And what fishing trip would be complete without a photo of the prize fish?  Thomas caught a pike; not bad for his first time fishing.  Countless Canadians can reminisce about fishing trips taken as children.  

Colville's piece, Embarkation, appears to depict a husband and wife on a fishing trip.  Using an aerial view, Colville paints the woman descending the ladder to the fishing boat while her husband looks on.  The boat is devoid of fish so they must be just setting out (although not everyone who fishes comes back with any fish).  Colville grew up in Amherst, Nova Scotia situated on the Cumberland Basin, an arm of the Bay of Fundy.  Fishing was an ideal sport for the locals who had access to islands, bays, rivers, points and shoals.  

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Berlin Bus

Related image

In 1971, Alex Colville worked in Berlin as a Visiting Artist for the Kunstlerprogramm.  Fascinated by the city's double decker busses, he sketched one.  In 1978, he produced a painting of the Berlin bus, this time with a girl running alongside it.

While Paris introduced the first motorized double decker "autobus" in 1906, the first one appeared in Berlin in 1923.  The double decker bus, while able to hold more passengers, was difficult to manoeuvre under bridges or up hills.  However, Berlin, being so flat, lent itself well to the double decker model.  Bus transportation was crucial in a city like Berlin, which today is nine times the size of Paris.  The double decker busses were a good way for people to commute to work.  In more recent years they have been used for tourists.

In 1973, the first female drivers were hired (  The same year saw the postal service issue a stamp commemorating the 1970 "doppeldeckautobus" (,_MiNr_449.jpg). Berlin's double decker bus fleet peaked in 1992 at 1000, but ten years later had fallen to 450.  At that time busses held 95 passengers.  The new busses can hold up to 128 passengers.

Monday 5 June 2017

The River Thames

Alex Colville's The River Thames, circa 1974, features a woman in a fur trimmed coat and umbrella gazing over the bridge at the River Thames.  The scene, with the calm water, the buildings reflected in its surface, is utterly tranquil.  It does not betray the river's past or future.

The River Thames has been at the centre of much of London's history.  It was in 1858 that pedestrians crossed over its waters, handkerchiefs over their noses, to block out The Great Stink, the sewage emanating from the river's depths.  Workers at the House of Commons, on the banks of the Thames, soaked the curtains in lime.  Londoners who imbibed the drinking water were dropping dead due to cholera, a water borne disease.  The problem was not resolved until Joseph Bazalgette introduced his sewer system in 1866.

It was in 1940 that pedestrians standing on the London Bridge over the Thames watched the sky light up as Hitlers bombs reigned down on the city.  While many Brits retreated to the Underground to seek refuge from the Blitz, 43,000 civilians still perished, about half of which were Londoners.  The River Thames' docks in the East End were a common target for the Luftwaffe.  While bombs peppered the city during a 57-consecutive night Blitz, the London Bridge remained intact, almost personifying Britain's fierce leader, who proclaimed:  "We shall never surrender!"

In 1945, the smoke cleared and London returned to peacetime.  However, the city lived for many years in the shadow of the Second World War.  It was a long time before tourists once again strolled across the London Bridge and watched as Londoners slowly rebuilt their city.  By the time the city was back on its feet in 1965, its fearless leader was laid to rest amid much pomp and circumstance. The 1960's also saw a rise in immigration and London, more than ever before, became a multicultural centre.

London's peacetime was not shattered until 2005 when terrorists targetted London's Underground, killing 56 people and injuring almost 800.  The date was referred to as 7/7 in the wake of 9/11.  Earlier this year, the London Bridge became the location for another terrorist attack when a vehicle ran over many pedestrians.  This past weekend, Londoners once again heard gunshots and bomb blasts as terrorists laid siege to London Bridge and Borough Market.

It seems fitting, today, that I blog about Alex Colville's 1974 painting The River Thames which hearkens back to a more innocent time.  I pray for peace for London.

Sunday 4 June 2017

Soldier & Girl at Station

A soldier and his girl share a long embrace at a train station.  Is he departing or arriving?  The picture does not say.  I get the impression that the soldier is departing as the scene looks quiet and sad rather than happy and exuberant.  They are the only two people on the platform, as if the rest of the world does not exist. It's likely a scene that Alex Colville witnessed dozens of times in his work as a war artist.  One blogger explains:  "It was the accompanying sketches that Colville drew, before going off to war, of the same scene, but crowded and bustling with other passengers."  The painting, completed in 1953, is both a testament to the blinding effect of love and the lonely effect of war.

Colville based the station on the Sackville Train Station in New Brunswick which precedes the Amherst, Nova Scotia Station, Colville's home as a boy.  While Soldier & Girl at Station disappeared for decades into private collections, it resurfaced in recent years and sold at auction for over $663,000.

Saturday 3 June 2017

Woman at Clothesline

In the 1950's, Alex Colville painted a series of paintings highlighting domestic life.  Woman at Clothesline depicts a housewife, modelled by his real life wife Rhoda, holding a laundry basket.  The painting was completed at Colville's house on York Street.

The beauty of the painting is in its simplicity:  the simple dress that the woman wears, the simple sheets hanging from the clothesline, the simple task that she performs.  As one essayist explains Alex Colville's work:  "It is uncluttered by period sentiment, aloof, complete and self explanatory:  such things travel well through time."

Alex Colville embraced magic realism, "a literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy."  While Colville passed away in 2013, his style is alive and well in artists like Alan Bateman, son of the famous Robert Bateman.

Woman at Clothesline

Friday 2 June 2017

Horse & Train

"Against a regiment, I oppose a brain, and a dark horse against an armoured train."

Canadian painter Alex Colville used to construct model trains as a little boy. He was a student of order. His father and grandfather owned horses.  It seemed the perfect mix, then, to paint an horse and a train in 1953.  But there was another source of inspiration for Colville's painting -- the poem A Dark Horse Against an Armoured Train published by South African writer Roy Campbell in 1949.  "Against a regiment, I oppose a brain, and a dark horse against an armoured train."  The setting for the painting is Aular, near Sackville, New Brunswick where the elevated tracks cross the Tantramar Marshes.

The order that Colville thrived on as a little boy was upset by the images he saw and sketched during the Second World War, particularly the massive piles of bodies in the concentration camp, Bergen Belsen.  When Colville returned to Canada after the war, he tried to make sense out of the disorder in the world through existentialism.  He sought to embrace existence and to find meaning in his life.  The Horse and Train painting symbolizes the freedom of both the horse and the engineer:  while on a collision course, the horse could change direction at any time and the engineer could apply the brakes.  At the same time, as one columnist pointed out:  "Everything in an Alex Colville painting has an air of inevitability."

Horse and Train, arguably Colville's most famous piece, was acquired by the Hamilton ARt Gallery in 1957 where it remains to this day.


Thursday 1 June 2017

Alex Colville: Canada's Norman Rockwell

Last October, I blogged every day about one of Norman Rockwell's paintings (  Today, I googled Canada's Norman Rockwell and came up with the name Alex Colville.  In fact, Colville "traces his initial inspiration to become an artist to the hours he spent as a boy pouring over the Saturday Evening Post", a magazine filled with Rockwell's illustrations (

The famous Canadian painter was born in Toronto and grew up in Amherst, Nova Scotia.  He first used his painting skills when he served in the Canadian Army during World War II.  When he returned from overseas, he married and started teaching art at Nova Scotia's Mount Allison University.  His artwork featured "tranquil compositions which focussed on routine moments of family life and featured landscapes, animals and the sea."

"To Prince Edward Island", "Nude and Dummy" and "Horse and Train" are three of his more prominent pieces.  Colville's work was viewed by millions of Canadians via art galleries, magazines, book covers, postcards, posters, television, coins and a record album (Bruce Cockburn).

Embracing abstract and impressionist art, and with a focus on the ordinary, Colville has been called "Canada's Norman Rockwell".  The painter's technique involved "a painstaking process of multiple drawings, precise geometry and carefully applied blots of paint."  By the 1950's, Colville came to be associated with the regionalist school of painting demonstrated by the American Precisionists of the 1930's.  While Colville's career began in Canada, it was not until he pariticpated in exhibitions in Hanover, German and London England in 1969 that he found commercial success here at home.

Colville served as visiting professor at the University of California in 1967 and as visiting artist at the university of Berlin in 1971.  He was named Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967.  From 1981 to 1991, he was chancellor of Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.  Colville's 1953 painting, "Man on Verandah" sold for $1.29 million in 2010, setting a record for a piece by a living Canadian artist.

Man on Verandah — painting by Alex Colville