Ontario-born artist David Milne had strikingly simple desires. He once wrote that having “hills to sit on while painting other hills” ranked high on his wish list. Primarily a landscape painter, Milne, who died in 1953 at age 71, led a life that was hill-rich but cash-poor. In 1934, while living in a tar-paper shack near Georgian Bay, he attempted to sell his entire body of work, approximately 1,000 pictures, to Vincent Massey and his wife, Alice. Asking price: $5 apiece. The future governor general and his wife did in fact buy 300 of them at that humble rate. More recently, however, one of Milne’s paintings sold for $85,800. And last week, the largest retrospective ever of Milne’s eloquent and original work opened at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., 30 km northwest of Toronto.
The 155-piece show, which travels in January to the Vancouver Art Gallery, co-organizer of the exhibition, and then in July to the National Gallery in Ottawa, seems likely to
consolidate the reputation of a long-undervalued artist. Funded by Trimark Investment Management Inc., Amex Bank of Canada and The Financial Post, the $l-million show includes watercolors, oil paintings and prints from major public galleries and private collections. Said the retrospective’s curator, Ian Thom: “He remains for me an endlessly fascinating artist.” Added Thom, formerly on the McMichael staff and now a senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery: “In his pictures, he was constantly challenging himself and doing the unexpected.”
But Milne has always remained in the shadow of his famous contemporaries, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. His own approach to landscape was very different from theirs— or anyone else’s, for that matter. While their bold canvases tend to celebrate nature in its full resplendence, Milne’s art has a wintry, introspective quality, an intensity rooted in restraint. Partly because of the smallness of his pictures—many of them are no bigger than a
place mat — they have brought relatively modest sums at auction. The record price for a Milne was set in Toronto in 1987, when the oil painting Temagami from Above the Railroad sold for $78,000, plus the auction house’s premium of $7,800. (Emily Carr’s works of similar size have sold for comparable sums; some Group of Seven oil paintings have sold for more than $500,000.) Milne’s art never shouts to be heard—but, as Thom told Maclean ’s, “if you really take the time to look at it, you will be rewarded.”
Early in life, Milne learned to work hard and live frugally. Raised in Paisley, Ont., 180 km northwest of Toronto, he was the youngest of 10 chil! dren. His parents, both Scot-
0 tish immigrants, barely man| aged to support the family by y running a home laundry and 5 selling produce from their ô garden. As a young man,
1 Milne taught school for three g years in Paisley and saved his u money. In 1903, after borrowing additional funds from one of his brothers, he moved to New York City to attend art school. After three years of study at the Art Students League, he remained in the city, eking out an existence as a commercial artist.
All the time that he was painting signs and illustrating magazines, he continued to work at his own painting. By frequenting the most progressive galleries, Milne came into contact with the work of such influential French artists as Georges Seurat and Henri Matisse. Soon, his own work, which relied on the bright colors and animated brushwork that Postimpressionism had popularized, was gaining critical acclaim. Five of his pictures were included in the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, a shock-of-the-new collection that enraged artworld conservatives and went down in history as the Armory Show, a reference to the building in which it was held.
But at the same time that he was gaining recognition, the diffident and contemplative artist was restless in the city. He wanted to move somewhere less expensive in order to abandon the time-consuming commercial work and focus wholly on his art. In 1916, Milne and his wife—he had married a New Yorker, bookkeeper May (Patsy) Hegarty, in 1912—moved to Boston Comers, a village in the hills of Upstate New York. By the time he left the city, he had begun to develop his distinctive preference for subdued colors, applied so sparingly that areas of unpainted background showed through. It was in Boston Comers, however, that he truly came into his own as an artist.
A pencil-and-watercolor work from his first year there, Bishop’s Pond, provides stunning evidence of Milne’s gift for capturing contrast-
ing textures. While the trees on the shore are scratchily depicted, the artist gave their reflections a fluid look by brushing a watercolor wash over the pond—a beautifully simple idea, and one that is entirely consistent with Milne’s philosophical approach to his art. He once described his pictures as “simplifications of line and color intended to produce a thrill, a kick.” An artist, he also wrote, “doesn’t try to repro-
duce the thing before him: he simplifies and eliminates until he knows exactly what stirred him.”
Milne’s Boston Corners years were interrupted by service as an official Canadian war artist in 1918 and 1919. The current retrospective contains an artistically and historically fascinating sampling of the paintings he executed in England near the end of the First World
War, and in France soon after the fighting had ceased. Better at portraying stark stillness than human figures in motion, Milne’s most effective work depicted the war’s desolate aftermath in such places as Vimy Ridge. “I never could quite decide if I was the last soldier or the first tourist,” he wrote with characteristic wryness, “but it was thrilling.”
Milne returned to Boston Comers for a time in 1919, and lived in various parts of Upstate New York throughout the 1920s. Meanwhile, he attempted to gain a foothold in the Canadian art world. Group of Seven member J. E. H. MacDonald arranged for a solo show of Milne’s work in Toronto in 1924. But, as David Silcox notes in an essay in the retrospective’s catalogue, nothing sold. And as MacDonald himself reported, the only I response from the critics was “a great
0 deal of silent wondering.”
1 Still, Milne returned to Ontario for y good in 1929. Apart from two brief 5 periods in Toronto, he lived in rural ô areas for the rest of his life, frequently I on his own in isolated cabins that he § had built. He and his first wife parted u in 1933, and five years later, he met
his second wife, Kathleen (Wyb) Pavey. David Milne Jr., their son and his only child, was born when the artist was 59. By then, Milne was at last beginning to have some critical and commercial success. In Douglas Duncan, the Toronto gallery owner who had become his dealer in 1938, the artist found a committed and influential champion.
During the last 15 years of his career, Milne’s art took some surprising turns. His colors became more vibrant, and his trademark dry, scratchy line started to soften— especially when he started adding more water to his watercolors. As well, his late oil paintings, such as the 1944 canvas Monkey and Orange Lilies, have a warmer, looser look.
Meanwhile, Milne, who had always drawn inspiration from real landscapes, real flowers and other subjects that he could see and touch, turned increasingly to fanciful and spiritual subjects. Among his late works are whimsical depictions of Noah’s Ark and more serious religious meditations on the theme of ascension. From a technical standpoint, Milne remained a richly innovative artist, but the pictures from his final years lack the exquisitely honed rigor of his earlier works. When he was living in Bang croft, Ont., in 1952, a stroke ended his t artistic career. A second stroke ended a his life a year later. Four decades after 5 his death, as the current retrospective 5 reveals, David Milne’s quietly articu| late work still speaks with astounding > clarity.
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