While a painting by Alfred Sisley can be confused with one by Camille Pissarro, a painting by David Milne is unmistakable.
There is a David Milne Centre at the Art Gallery of Ontario. On display are oil paintings, watercolours, and works from his early New York period recovered from an old trunk. In addition, archived items are regularly on view from among the 2,700 objects gifted by the Milne estate, including letters, photographs, diaries, sketches, and Milne’s paint box.
Much has been written about Milne, but James King’s new biography Inner Places: The Life of David Milne (2015) is exemplary. Beautifully illustrated – a plus when it comes to a book about an artist – it is informative without being pernickety, and interesting (a quality not always in evidence). King observes that:
“David Milne is one of Canada’s finest artists, but in many ways he remains, sixty years after his death, an isolated figure. His pictures are usually not quite as bright as, say, many of the masterpieces by the Group of Seven. Unlike them, he did not link his work with his country’s national destiny.”
Born in Ontario, David Milne (1882-1953) found a unique artistic voice in watercolours and oils as well as developing a drypoint technique embracing the refined but poetic nature of his art. Largely self-taught and a contemporary of the Group of Seven, Milne set out for New York City in 1903, exhibiting at the ground-breaking Armory Show of 1913 (which introduced Americans to the experimental styles of the European avant-garde, including Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism).
“Drying Waterfall” was painted in the vicinity of Boston Corners in 1916, the rural retreat that Milne discovered in order to escape from Manhattan. Milne employed basic tones of black and white and intermediate grey, with highlights of red, blue, brown, and dark green. When the painting was sold at Sotheby’s in 2010, the catalogue noted that Milne was “fascinated by the practice of camouflage, and it showed up in his paintings.”
As a war artist, Milne spent time in the north of England at a Canadian soldiers’ camp on the Yorkshire moors. At the end of World War I, he was sent to France where he made watercolours in the aftermath of the conflict, such as “Loos from the Trenches on Hill 70” painted in 1919 [illustrated below]. He then returned to upstate New York to work on his distinctive artistic style and finally, in 1929, to Canada, where he spent the rest of his life in relative seclusion searching for what James King calls “the presence of the divine in nature”:
“For Milne the landscape artist, nature was much more than mere trees, forests, mountains, and lakes. … He was a deeply spiritual artist who distinguished between the spiritual forest and mundane trees.”
The writer Mark Twain – with characteristic exaggeration – once observed that all his works were “autobiographies”. This is certainly true of David Milne, whose paintings suggest a passion for life tempered by order and design. Many late works are almost palimpsests, shadowy or scratched out images of what once was. Others are a riot of colour and joie de vivre.
In The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1946), the literary critic Northrop Frye wrote:
“Milne has brought his painting to the point at which it has become the pictorial handwriting, so to speak, of a genuinely simple but highly civilized mind. This has enabled him to detach himself further than ever from the picturesque object and develop a free fantasy which may remind some of Chagall. … Few if any contemporary painters, in or outside Canada, convey better than he does the sense of painting as an emancipation of visual experience, as a training of the intelligence to see the world in a spirit of leisure and urbanity.”
David Milne may well be the greatest Canadian painter of the 20th century.