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 Alex (David Alexander) Colville  (1920 - 2013)



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Lived/Active: Nova Scotia/Ontario / Canada      Known for: painting, printmaking, murals, teaching

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Ad Code: 1
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from Auction House Records.
Man on Verandah
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Alexander Colville (AKA: David Alexander Colville) is a painter, printmaker, muralist and educator who was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  He spent most of his early childhood in St.Catherines, Ontario. In 1929 his family moved to Amherst, Nova Scotia.  In 1973 he moved to Wolfville, Nova Scotia (about 50 miles North) where he currently (2009) lives and works.
His primary mediums, since 1963, are acrylic polymer emulsion and serigraph.  He has also worked with glazed tempera, casein tempera, glazed oil emulsion, oil on synthetic resin, egg tempera, ink, watercolour and felt tip pen.  His subjects are his family, pets, animals, means of transportation, local landscape, nudes, symbolism, allegory, genre and (during World War II) war.  His style is described as High Realism (1). It is meticulous, crisp and precisely composed.  The effect on many viewers, regardless of the innocuous  image, is often a feeling of something disturbing or dangerous.  For decades he has created only 3 or 4 works a year. His stated influences are Edouard Manet, Thomas Eakins, Ben Shahn, Edward Hopper and Georges Seurat (see all in AskART).  He  is also influenced by the scale and composition of ancient Egyptian wall art. Quote: "My work emerges fairly directly out of my experience as a person - I suppose I should say my total experience. I paint almost always people and animals whom I consider to be wholly good, admirable, or important. I always conceive them in environments which is, I suppose, why I am not a sculptor." - Alex Colville.
He attended (1938-1942) and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick (about 10 miles from Amherst). He studied there under Stanley Royle (see AskART).
He served in the Canadian Army from 1942 until 1946 and as an Official War Artist from 1944 to 1946. His posts included England, the Netherlands, and Germany. 
After service in the Canadian Army he returned to Mount Allison to teach art and art history from 1946 until 1963 when he began painting full time.  He was also a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1967- 68.  And from 1981 until 1991 he served as Chancellor of Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S. 

His first group exhibition was with the Royal Canadian Academy at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto in 1946.  Subsequent exhibitions include the Canadian Group of Painters (1947 and 1950); "Reality and Fantasy 1900 - 1954" at the Walker Center (Minneapolis); the Biennial Exhibitions of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1955,57 and 59); the Canadian Society of Graphic Artists at the Art Gallery of Ontario (1956); the "Inter-American Painting and Engraving Biennial", Mexico City (1958); the Brussels World's Fair (1958); the Sao Paulo Biennial (1961); "Commonwealth Art Today" London, England; "Canadian Painting 1939 - 1963" at the Tate Gallery (London); the Venice Biennale (1966); "Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art" at the National Gallery of Canada (1967); "Eight Artists from Canada" at the Tel Aviv Museum, Israel (1970); "Twentieth Century Canadian Painting" at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (1981); and "Canadian Artists of the Second World War" at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario (1981).
In addition he has shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario (1955, 56, 57, 59, 61, 65, 75, 76 and 78); the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1954, 64, 68 and 72); the  National Gallery of Canada (1954, 61 and 62); the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1963); the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1958); the Museum of Art and History, Geneva (1959); the Norman Mackenzie Art Galley, Regina (1967); the Edmonton Art Gallery (1978); the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax (1980); and many more.
Colville's first one man show was at the New Brunswick Museum (Saint John) in 1951.  Since then, one-man shows have been mounted at the National Gallery of Canada (1966); the University of Toronto (1966); the University of Alberta, Edmonton (1970); the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina (1976); the Canadian War Museum (1981); the Art Gallery of Ontario (1983); the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1994); the National Gallery of Canada (2000) and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (2004).
His work is avidly collected (2) and is in many private and public collections. Some of the public collections are the New Brunswick Museum (Saint John), the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), Museum Ludwig (Cologne), Kestner-Gesellschaft (Hanover), the New National Gallery (Berlin), Museum London (Ontario), the Museum of Modern Art (Vienna), the Mendel Art Gallery (Saskatoon), the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (Halifax), the Edmonton Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art at Georges Pompidou Centre (Paris) and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery (Fredericton, N.B.). The National Gallery of Canada has 65 Colvilles in its collection. A mural example titled  "The History of Mount Allison" can be viewed at Mount Allison University.
Included among his many awards and honours are eight honorary doctorates. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967 and elevated to Companion of the Order Of Canada (CC) in 1982 (the very highest Canadian honour). He was elected to the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Canada in 1990, he was appointed to the Queen's Privy Council for Canada (3) in 1992, and in 2003 he received the Governor General's Award for Visual and Media Arts and the Order of Nova Scotia his province's highest honour. He was also chosen to design the coins for Canada's Centennial in 1967 and the Governor General's Award Medal in 1978. His painting "Family and Rainstorm" (1952) was used on a postage stamp in 1982.
In 1984 the film Alex Colville - The Splendour of Order was produced by Minerva Films and in 2000 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced and aired the documentary The Life and Times of Alex Colville.

There are also six books about him and his work:  The Art of Alex Colville (1972), by Helen J. Dow; Alex Colville: Diary of a War Artist (1983), compiled by Graham Metson and Cheryl Lean; Colville (1983), by David Burnett; Alex Colville - The Observer Observed (1994), by Mark A. Cheetham; Alex Colville: Paintings Prints and Processes 1983-1994 (1995), by Philip Fry; and Alex Colville: Return (2003), by Tom Smart.
(1) According to Paul Duval in his book High Realism in Canada, it's essential qualities are: "objectivity of vision, sharpness of definition, precision of technique, accuracy of detail and excellence of craftsmanship."

(2) His highest auction price to date is $600,000.00, in 2007, for his 1951 (24" X 32") painting titled Two Pacers.  Source Canadian Art Sales Index - 2009 Edition, Westbridge Publications Ltd. This ranks Colville as number 14 on the list of Canadian artists with the highest prices at auction. He is also the only living artist on the list of the top 100 Canadian paintings at auction.

(3) Members include all living Prime Ministers, Governors General, cabinet ministers, Chief Justices, members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee and occasionally, a distinguished citizen not in politics or government.  It is primarily an honorary body and the members can put "Honourable" before their name and "P.C." after.  The last meeting was on March 27,1981 to give formal consent to the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer.

Prepared and Contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist.

Alex Colville, Leading Canadian Artist, Dies at 92

Alex Colville, a celebrated Canadian painter who revealed emotional and cultural tension in his spare and precise depictions of moments that might otherwise seem mundane — a middle-aged kiss through the window of a Honda Civic, a summer ferry ride, a surveyor taking the measure of marshlands meeting the sea — died on Tuesday at his home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his son Graham.

Mr. Colville, who worked as an artist for the Canadian military during World War II, received international attention early in his career, including several gallery exhibitions in Manhattan in the 1950s and in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. His works are in many major collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Center in Paris.

But at a time when the art world was tilting toward abstraction and internationalism, Mr. Colville was also something of an outsider, dedicated to figurative painting and to his native Canada, where he was revered by many as "painter laureate." In 1965, he was commissioned by the government to design commemorative coins for Canada's centennial. In his final decades, he collected a series of honors; most notably, he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, a lifetime achievement award.

In 2004 the art historian Martin Kemp called Mr. Colville "the best Canadian artist of his time." Comparing Mr. Colville to the English Romantic painter John Constable, he wrote, "He is a local painter in the sense that Constable was local, creating art that has to draw nourishment from scenes known intimately in order to find a wider truth."

Mr. Colville was inspired by a range of figurative painters, including Edward Hopper and George Tooker, as well as Giotto. Throughout his career he pursued a synthesis of compositional exactness and psychological complexity.

Among Mr. Colville's most noted works is Horse and Train, from 1954. The painting, which is on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, in Ontario, shows a dark horse galloping down railroad tracks, away from the viewer and into the path of an oncoming train. Mr. Colville has said the painting was inspired by a couplet written by the South African poet Roy Campbell: "Against a regiment I oppose a brain,/And a dark horse against an armoured train."

Mr. Kemp, a professor at Oxford at the time, wrote about Mr. Colville in the journal Nature, focusing on his painstaking and mathematical process for accurately representing figures and landscapes in perspective. For his 2001 work The Surveyor, Mr. Colville spent 14 months making nearly 30 drawings and geometrical studies.

"Colville's art is underpinned by his quest for order from apparent disorder," Mr. Kemp wrote. "He searches, like Piero della Francesca in the Renaissance or Georges Seurat in the late 19th century, for what we can find beneath and within the surface of appearances if we probe intensively enough."

David Alexander Colville was born in Toronto on Aug. 24, 1920. His family moved to Nova Scotia in 1929. He received a bachelor's degree in fine arts at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick in 1942 and enlisted the same year in the Canadian Army. He traveled to Europe as a military artist in 1944.

He was on the faculty at Mount Allison from 1946 until 1963, when he retired to paint full time. He continued to teach, however, holding visiting positions at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and in Germany.

In 1973, he moved with his wife, the former Rhoda Wright, to Wolfville, her childhood home. Mrs. Colville was frequently the model for female figures in her husband's paintings.

"My mother was his muse," Graham Colville said. "She was also a partner, very equal."

The Colvilles had been married for 70 years when Mrs. Colville died in December.

In addition to his son Graham, Mr. Colville is survived by another son, Charles; a daughter, Ann Kitz; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Another son, John, died last year.

Graham Colville noted that while his father is closely associated with Canada, many of his first successes came elsewhere.

"It's a strange sort of journey," he said, "sort of starting outside of Canada and then coming home."

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Alex Colville is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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