The renowned Canadian artist Alex Colville has died at home in Wolfville, N.S., on Tuesday. He was 92.
Colville was known to art lovers worldwide for paintings such as Horse and Train, in which a black horse runs along railway tracks toward the light of an oncoming train.
His oldest son, Graham Colville, said his father was suffering from a heart condition.
"We remember the days before all the pomp and circumstance. We treasure our long lives with and him," he said.
“He seemed to be in a reasonable good state immediately before he died."
“He managed to maintain a high quality of life including reading and conversation and so on until really a few days of the end. As recently as Friday at noontime, he was lying in bed and he said to me when I came into the room, ‘It seems that everyone around here is worried about my condition, but I really feel quite well.’ That was really the last conversation I had with him and we shook hands.”
His wife, Rhoda, who is often shown in his paintings -—as the woman looking through binoculars in To Prince Edward Island or nude in the light of the fridge in Refrigerator 1977 — died in December 2012.
Colville's work often displays commonplace moments from his own life — himself and his wife walking on a beach or himself standing with his car. But there is something sombre or even ominous about the images.
Paintings in high demand
Colville had been a pre-eminent figure on the Canadian art scene since the Second World War, when he was a war artist and chronicled the Canadian assault on Juno Beach in France.
For two years he was given almost free rein to travel and paint Allied activities throughout Europe. He painted English training camps, the Canadian Navy landing at Toulon, and the 3rd Infantry in Belgium.
At the end of the war, he was one of three Canadian artists sent to paint images of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. The works he painted in this period include Bodies in a Grave, Belsen and Shattered Landscape, Cleve.
After the war, he spent six months in Ottawa with other war artists, finishing his work.
Colville's work became very popular in Germany, where he did an artist's residency in 1971. He once told CBC Radio that Germans know how bad things can (and did) get.
"Everything in my paintings that frightens Canadians seems to appeal to Germans," he said.
Born in Toronto and raised in Nova Scotia, he graduated from Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., in 1942.
After the war, Colville took a job teaching art and art history at Mount Allison. He said he chose teaching instead of working as a commercial artist so he could continue to paint on the side.
In 1951, Colville's first solo exhibition was held at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John and by 1953, he had a solo show in New York.
In 1963 he devoted himself to painting full time. He and his wife moved in 1972 to a house in Wolfville, N.S., which had been Rhoda's childhood home. He maintained a studio there until his death.
While Colville's images seemed to be taken directly from reality, he drew them from multiple sketches and studies, planning a perfect composition before he began to paint.
The painting process could take months — with layer upon layer of thinned paint painstakingly applied dot by dot to a primed wooden panel.
"Behind his words, as behind his art, you can sense elaborate webs of thought. And, also like his paintings, he stands quite alone, beyond category. It's impossible to speak with him for a few hours without feeling his powerful sense of self. He is, it seems, a free man." Robert Fulford wrote in Toronto Life in 2000.
The tranquil scenes are deceptive, because something about the relationship between figures or the nature of the landscape will convey loneliness, isolation, parting, work, leisure, estrangement, love.
"I see life as inherently dangerous. I have an essentially dark view of the world and human affairs .. Anxiety is the normality of our age," Colville was quoted as saying.
Colville had a particular fondness for painting animals — there are dogs or horses in many of his paintings.
"I have a great rapport with animals," he once said. "I don't have a great rapport with people."
Colville's paintings are in high demand from private collectors around the world and have been throughout his career.
In 1966, he showed 12 paintings as Canada's representative at the Venice Biennale. Colville also designed a new set of coins celebrating Canada's 100th birthday in 1967.
His work can be found in gallery collections including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou in Paris. The Art Gallery of Hamilton owns the seminal work Horse and Train, often taken as an allegory for death.
The highest-price reached for a Colville painting at auction was set in 2010, when Man on Verandah, went for $1.1 million — $1,287,000 with the 17 per cent buyer's premium added.
In 1967, Colville was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1982, he was elevated to Companion, the order's highest level. He also has a star on Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto.
He was chancellor of Acadia University from 1981 to 1991 and a member of the board of the National Gallery of Canada from 1990 to 1993. In 2003, he received the Governor General's Award in Art and Visual Media.
Colville was married to Rhoda Wright, his muse and frequent model, from 1942 until her death 70 years later in 2012. They had four children — three sons and a daughter. He was predeceased by his son John in February 2012. His wife Rhoda Colville died Dec. 29 of that same year. "This was, of course, a terrible blow for our father," said Graham Colville.
"You might say that in some respects he never really recovered from that. But he certainly put on an amazing display of stamina and good cheer."
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