Aug. 24 marks the centenary of Alex Colville, OC, the great modern realist painter who died in 2013. Although his artwork portrayed a world of muted colours and stark scenes, the man himself, as I came to discover, was warm and responsive, though cloaked in an austere public image.
After I saw Alex’s paintings in Fredericton and wrote to him about his art, he invited me to see him in Wolfville. On my first of three visits, in September, 1999, we spent two afternoons driving through the riverine Nova Scotia landscape that inspired his work, and swam at his beach house on the Minas Basin. After he asked what I’d like to have for lunch, he bought several lobsters and enhanced them with a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé. That fall day was perfect, the sun dappled the grass and I felt blissfully happy – alone with Alex and his wife Rhoda in their secluded garden. I felt honoured by my friendship with a brilliant artist, and an intelligent, cultured and generous companion.
Colville was born in Toronto on Aug. 24, 1920. His work combines the Flemish detail of Andrew Wyeth, the eerie foreboding of George Tooker and the anguished confrontations of Lucian Freud. In contrast to Jackson Pollock’s splashing action pictures, Colville created paintings of contemplation and reflection that emphasized their intellectual content. His work had the fine draftsmanship and purity of line that runs from van Eyck through Duerer and Holbein to Ingres.
Isolated, provincial and deliberately cut off from city intellectuals, Colville didn’t need social life or external stimulation. His great strength and inner peace came from his long happy marriage to Rhoda, from close family ties and from being solidly at home in the Maritimes. In 1982, the 62-year-old Alex recalled that Titian had painted The Death of Actaeon in his nineties and hoped that “I may have another 30 years’ work ahead of me.” He fulfilled his ambition by living to the age of 92, working until his last few years and creating about 200 major paintings.
Handsome, elegant and slim, Alex had blue eyes and a thatch of white hair on a narrow head. He was formal and reserved, with a gentle handshake, yet also generous, lively and enthusiastic. When he found something amusing, he would throw his head back and laugh with full-hearted delight. At the time I knew him, he habitually rose early, walked the dog and worked from 8 to 12 in the morning. He picked up his mail at the Wolfville post office, answered letters and made phone calls, and let the afternoon “kind of drift away.” After dinner and wine at 6, he read or watched television, was in bed at 9.
Extremely cultured and well read, Alex could intelligently discuss any subject that came up, and we were drawn together by comparable interests in art and literature. “I am pleased to see once again how similar our tastes are,” Alex observed, “even to the extent of preferring a particular work by a favourite author.” Attracted to works that portray loss and pain, danger and death, Alex avidly read masculine writers from Joseph Conrad to George Orwell. Many of his works were inspired by literature: by the poems of William Wordsworth, John Berryman and Roy Campbell as well as by the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas.
Colville achieved heightened reality in his art through his harmonic composition, unusual angle of vision and intensified details. His pictures impose order on nature, increase our perception of the world and give universal significance to the particular. Like the Italian Old Masters, Colville saw painting as a form of construction. He made 30 or 40 drawings before beginning a major picture, calculated with severe perfectionism the geometric definition of space and drew the viewer’s eye to the still centre of his work.
His humane, penetrating vision looked far out and in deep, and his monumental figures and unsettling images suggested the metaphysical questions that evolved from reading the French Existentialists. He saw himself as “a floating observer – curiously detached,” and his subjects are often solitary and meditative. He believed life is essentially dangerous. There’s an element of the contingent and accidental, a feeling of mystery and angst, even in his most idyllic scenes.
His Cyclopean steam engine in Horse and Train, whose plume of smoke seems to drift toward the onrushing horse, was inspired by J. M. W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) and by Roy Campbell’s poem to his wife. Campbell’s pose is swaggering and vainglorious, naive and even suicidal, but his poetry is magnificent: “Against a regiment I oppose a brain. / And a dark horse against an armoured train.” Colville suggests that the horse – which rushes blindly down the tracks, between the shining rails and straight toward the inexorably speeding train – is helpless and doomed. The horse must either surrender its essential animal nature and veer off the track or be crushed by the charging mass of steel.
In Dressing Room, Rhoda, nude and braceleted, appears in profile with her slim breast and tuft of pubic hair. She adjusts her coiffure and gazes at herself in a hand-held mirror while her back is reflected in the sliver of the tall mirror. Colville, standing on a receding blue-and-grey tiled floor, is formally dressed in a tuxedo. Facing the viewer, he stares impatiently at the leisurely, self-absorbed Rhoda. The illuminated dressing table contains cosmetic objects that are shockingly surrounded by a wooden-handled, snub-nosed revolver and five bullets. Though elegantly dressed for a night out, Colville feels the need to defend himself and has a dangerous weapon at hand to use against an unknown enemy. The tranquility of the room may soon be shattered by the violent world. In this late masterpiece Colville portrays the anguished atmosphere, disconcerting emotions and psychological tension between man and woman. “The use of power,” he said, “is a key moral and philosophical problem, and that’s what my paintings featuring pistols are about.”
Colville and the leading American realist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) were close contemporaries, lived into their nineties and painted until the end of their lives. They had solid long-term marriages and several children, and their wives were devoted to the artists. Rhoda Colville was muse and model; Betsy Wyeth was business manager. Both men were rooted in the remote countryside and lived far from urban art centres. They opposed the fashionable tide of postwar abstract art, and usually painted their families and friends. They made many exact preliminary drawings, and used tempera rather than oil to create precise realistic details. Their paintings contained both symbolic and mysterious elements. Colville, who rarely travelled, was greatly appreciated in Germany. Wyeth, who never went abroad, was especially admired in Japan.
One of my essays about Alex had a fortunate impact. When an English collector read it, he flew to Canada and bought one of Alex’s pictures. Surprised and delighted, Alex said, “Your essay in Modern Painters [Autumn 2000] caught the eye of a Dr. Kaplan in London and he came to Toronto and bought the Studio painting. This is really amazing; all the time I had work at Harry Fischer’s gallery no one in England ever bought a painting of mine.”
Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, published The Mystery of the Real: Letters of the Canadian Artist Alex Colville and Biographer Jeffrey Meyers (Sussex Academic Press, 2016). He has also written biographies of Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper and Amedeo Modigliani, among many others.