As his model, muse and wife of 70 years, Rhoda Colville helped her husband to create some of Canada’s finest art.
Drawing on subject matter closest to him, celebrated painter Alex Colville has painted his beloved wife often, in addition to other family members, his animals and the landscape near his home in Nova Scotia. At the core of many of his paintings is the loving bond between a man and a woman, one which developed and deepened over the course of decades.
“She really inspired him in a way that a muse does,” said Tom Smart, renowned curator and the author of Alex Colville: Return. “They had a very close and loving relationship. It was hard to think of one without the other.”
But Colville’s paintings are not just a recording of the world he knows in his daily life – they are representational reflections of a world filled with darkness and danger, as well as beauty and joy. As one critic once said, in Colville’s paintings there is always something terrible happening, just out of sight.
Rhoda Colville, as his model and muse, represented the presence of goodness, Mr. Smart said. “Not many people have a marriage for as long. He interpreted it in a beautiful way. You get an artistic representation of a relationship between a loving couple. It is an enormous legacy as an artist.”
The artist once said of his choice of themes: “I paint almost always people and animals whom I consider to be wholly good.”
Rhoda Colville was born in Wolfville, N.S., on Valentine’s Day in 1921. Her childhood was marked by a tragedy that happened on a summer day, when she was eight years old. Her father, Charles, a respected building contractor, brother Graham, sister Jean, her mother’s father and an aunt were on their way to visit relatives when their car was struck by a train. Rhoda and her mother had decided to stay at home.
After the accident, she remembered her mother solemnly telling her, “It’s just us the two of us now” – and the haunting image of five coffins in the living room.
“It was so awful,” said her daughter, Ann Kitz. “Life changed totally and forever.”
In 1938, Rhoda went to Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., to study fine art. It was the first year of the art class, and there were only 10 students, two of whom were men.
There she met and fell in love with her future husband. In a documentary in 2000, she explained that this was a sexually conservative time. While they were friendly and exchanged opinions on art, there was no romance.
But something exciting happened one day when they were crossing the road; Alex took her hand. “That was quite a thrill,” she recalled. “Can you imagine that? That was the beginning of the end of the platonic friendship.”
In 1941, when the men’s university residence burned to the ground and four students died in the blaze, she stood outside in her dressing gown anxiously watching the fire, saying to herself: “If Alex gets out alive, I’ll marry him.” The following year she did.
Not long after the wedding, her new husband joined the army, serving as a war artist.
Rhoda said of the war: “When we were children we used to look at the war book that we had, a book of photographs of the first war. You would see all the soldiers marching or leaving on trains and waving, the women on the platforms throwing kisses. I had the feeling that I was part of the past – is this really me or am I taking part in something that’s all been gone through many times before?
“Everything changed suddenly, you couldn’t count on going ahead and having the kind of life you’d been thinking about. You think, ‘What will this do to us, what will we do now?’ ”
During the war, she returned to Wolfville to live; in 1944, the first of their four children was born.
When the war ended the couple moved back to Sackville, where Alex was offered a teaching position in Mount Allison’s art department.
Painter Mary Pratt, then one of his students, remembers bumping into Rhoda one day at the grocery store meat counter. After asking the butcher what size of ham she should buy for a family of six, Rhoda turned and said with a smile that, although she knew the weight she needed, she always asked the butcher simply because it made her feel young. “She kind of twinkled when she talked,” Pratt said.
As a young artist, Pratt remembers looking fondly at the Colvilles as they went about their daily lives, skiing and going to church on Sundays. “It was a lovely family to watch,” she said. “They did things as a family.”
In 1963, with four children to support, Alex Colville resigned from the university to devote himself full-time to painting. He had his wife’s blessing. “It was a gutsy move,” Ms. Kitz said.
Nine years later, they moved back to Wolfville and lived in the house her father had built and where she had grown up. She loved spending time in the fields, hills, waterways and beaches of the picturesque Annapolis Valley. An enthusiastic swimmer, skater, and cyclist, her athleticism and love of nature was captured in her husband’s art.
In 1994, the artist wrote: “I suspect that what troubles people about my work, in which they find mystery and intrigue, may well be the idea that ordinary things are important.”
He shared his wife’s love of nature. Most afternoons, after he was done working in his studio, they would head outdoors to ski or sail, depending on the season.
Age didn’t stop them. When they were in their 70s, the Colvilles took part in a three-day canoe trip in Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site. “They did it with great fortitude and enthusiasm,” said long-time friend and neighbour Bruce Matthews.
A shy, kind person with a self-deprecating, wry sense of humour, Rhoda acted as a grandmother to her neighbour’s children, inviting them in often for cookies. “She was very giving,” Matthews said.
Living in a small university town as an artist’s wife and model wasn’t always easy. She admitted to a little discomfort about being the nude model in so many of her husband’s paintings. When Refrigerator (1977), in which both she and her husband are depicted unclothed, appeared on the cover of a popular magazine, she recalled standing sheepishly at the local grocery store’s checkout counter while the clerk looked at the magazine cover, then at her and back again. “She was a good sport about things like that,” Kitz said.
Her husband’s practice of hanging a finished painting in the living room for family and friends to admire before it was shipped to a dealer led to a few tense moments. One day in 1963, a meeting of the women’s church group was held at the Colville home. Rhoda served tea to the ladies while the painting June Noon, in which she stands nude inside a tent, hung prominently on the wall.
“They were sitting there with their eyes popping out of their heads and probably not saying anything about the painting,” Ms. Kitz said.
Rhoda herself was a gifted artist who sketched her children and created whimsical pictures for them when they were young. She also wrote poems for special occasions and birthdays. “They were charming and quite funny. They were mostly lighthearted,” Kitz said.
In 2005, when a tribute to her husband was held in the Annapolis Valley, Rhoda published a limited edition of 400 books entitled Rhymes for Alex.
I think the best gift I can give
Is a little advice about how to live.
Now, instead of storing up treasures in heaven,
You’re getting your kicks from a Super Seven,
But when we get to be eighty-five
Provided we both are still alive,
If we sell all our worldly goods, we might
Be just as content with a Super Light.
And I would go guiltless to heaven above
And you could come too, as my only love.”
“They had a wonderful life together,” said Kitz. “They did what they wanted to do.”
Speaking about his wife, Alex told his daughter: “My love for her is the one great big fact of my life.”
Rhoda Colville died on Dec. 29 with Alex at her side at their home in Wolfville; she suffered from dementia. She leaves her husband, sons Graham and Charles, daughter Ann, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She was predeceased in 2012 by her son John.
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