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Dog and Fireplace, 1950 (graphite and gouache on watercolour board)

From Coast to Coast the Iron Horse.1 
From Coast to Coast the Iron Horse.2 
On Artist Alexander Colville
Photo credit: Colville House & Colville Website, unless otherwise indicated

Alexander Colville (1920 – 2013)

Artist Alex Colville PC CC ONS (24 August 1920 – 16 July 2013) passed away last week, a month shy of his 93rd birthday. I wrote two posts featuring artist Alex Colville’s 1954 “Horse and Train” (glazed tempera). When Colville created “Horse and Train,” he was inspired by Anglo-African poet and satirist Roy Campbell (2 October 1901 – 22 April 1957) who wrote (see Alexander Colville, Wikipedia):

Against a regiment I oppose a brain
And a dark horse against an armored train.
Roy Campbell

I also wrote a post on Alexander Colville, the artist: Artist Alexander Colville. At the top of this post, I showed an exceptional painting of a hound, “Hound in Field” (casein tempera [cocaine a tempera]), created in 1958 by Alexander Colville, and wrote comments on this painting. At the bottom of that post, I featured the painting shown at the top of the current post: “Dog and Fireplace.” That particular post included biographical notes. These require editing, after which I will insert them in this post.

Biographical Notes

Alex Colville was born in Toronto, in 1920. In 1929, the Colville family had moved to Amherst, Nova Scotia, after living in St. Catharines, Ontario for nearly three years. In Amherst, Colville took art lessons from Sarah Hart, a member of the Fine Arts faculty at Mount Allison University. These were extension classes organized by Stanley Royle. It is at this point that Stanley Royle, Head of the Fine Arts Department at Mount Allison, discovered Colville’s artistic potential and encouraged him to study the fine arts, which led him to enter Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick

Mount Allison University is one of Canada‘s finest small universities and, for a long time, the finest. Colville studied at Mount Allison from 1938 to 1942, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. That year, 1942, Alex Colville married Rhoda Wright, whom he had met in an art class where there were only ten students. That same year, 1942, Colville enlisted in the Canadian Army, in the infantry. His first son was born on 15 July 1944 when Colville was overseas and, since May 1944, had been working as official war artist, one of 31 artists chosen by the Canadian Government. Among other assignments, he was tasked with “depicting the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.” (See Alexander Colville, Wikipedia)

Colville was posted to Ottawa until completion of his duties as war artist. He then returned to New Brunswick and taught art at Mount Allison University from 1946 until 1963. As of 1963, he devoted his life to his paintings. In 1965 (see Colville House), he painted “To Prince Edward Island,” perhaps his best-known painting. In the early 1970s, the Colville family moved to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Rhoda Wright’s hometown. They settled in the house Rhoda’s father had built and where Rhoda was born. For ten years, beginning in 1981, Alex Colville was Chancellor of Acadia University, in Wolfville. He lost one of his sons on 22 February 2012 and, a few months later, on 29 December 2012, his wife Rhoda passed away. Colville died of a heart condition on 16 July 2013. He is survived by two sons and a daughter.

For further information and to see several paintings by Colville, visit Colville House and the Colville Website.

Horse and Train, 1954 (glazed tempera)

Hound in Field, 1958 (casein tempera [cocaine a tempera])



Alexander Colville was and will remain an internationally renowned master of his art, but I would prefer not to pigeon hole him.  However, I will note a degree of incongruity in his art. In “To Prince Edward Island,” the woman looks at the person(s) looking at the painting. I am reminded of Denis Diderot‘s (5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784) Paradoxe sur le comédien (written between 1770 and 1778; first published posthumously in 1830). Who is the spectator? Is it the actor (comédien)?

In “Dog and Child,” 1952 and “Woman and Terrier,” 1963, the artist focusses on the dogs. This is particularly true of “Woman and Terrier.” That painting seems a re-ordering of human beings and animals, not to say a re-ordering of the great chain of beings. To a certain extent, it would be legitimate to compare a painting such as “Horse and Train” (1954) to Édouard Manet‘s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“The Luncheon on the Grass”). Both artworks feature elements that do not seem to belong. The horse does not seem to belong, except symbolically. Colville’s “Woman with Gun” and his “Pacific” also give expression to incongruity. Guns do not belong in those “settings,” except symbolically.

But I would prefer not to associate Colville with a School.  All I can say is that Colville’s art is a perfectly crafted and controlled expression of a personal unconscious and personal world view, which probably reflects his experience as official war artist. What Alex Colville saw and depicted at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was an instance of inconceivable inhumanity. Could this explain the juxtaposition in “Woman with Gun” and in “Pacific,” of a human being and a gun, a gun that does not seem to belong? It may and it may not.


Woman with Gun, 1987 (acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard)
Pacific, 1967 (acrylic polymer emulsion on hard board)

The Brain

Yet, “Horse and Train may also depict the superiority of the human brain and human imagination. The human brain created trains and cars, horse-power, and the human brain created technologies of all kinds. Artificial intelligence is the product of the human brain. So, the human brain and the brain of animals are superior to all the technologies currently available.


Yes there is incongruity in Alex Colville’s paintings.  However not only does his art depict the human condition in its broadest acceptation, but Colville’s paintings also portray very ordinary moments, moments that do not usually constitute a successful subject matter for a painting, unless one is Alexander Colville. The “Refrigerator,” 1977, is an example of an ordinary moment transformed into a work of art. We have just seen Japonisme, ukiyo-e prints rendered in flat colours. There is a degree of that flatness, but a textured flatness, in the manner Colville applies his colours. From both the point of view of composition and that of colouring, his “Hound in Field” is an example of Japonism, down to the diagonal line. This, he may not, and need not, have realized.

Alexander Colville’s art is contained just as his life was contained and stable. There is considerable drama to his “Horse and Train,” to his “Woman with Gun” and “Pacific.” And there is drama emanating from the juxtaposition of a large dark dog and a pale naked child. However, that dog is domesticated. That dog is the dog depicted at the top of this post.  He is spleeping  peacefully in front of an unadorned yet beautifully designed fireplace. So I will close here. It’s comfortable.


war1  Infantry_at_Niijmegen

 Dog and Child ca011pr-alex-colville_woman-and-terrier-1023x1024
The Refrigerator
Holland and Germany, 1944
Infantry at Nijmegen, 1946 (The Canadian War Museum, Ottawa)
Dog and Child, 1952
Woman and Terrier, 1963 (Photo credit: Kerrisdale Gallery)
To Prince Edward Island, 1965
The River Spree, 1971
Refrigerator, 1977
Cat and Artist, 1979 (Photo credit: Bert Christensen)
Seven Crows, 1980 
© Micheline Walker
July 22, 2013