Alex Colville, celebrated Canadian artist, dead at 92
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, July 16, 2013 11:07PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, July 17, 2013 11:43AM EDT
Celebrated painter Alex Colville, whose meticulously crafted scenes of everyday life established him as one of Canada's most well-known modern artists, has died at the age of 92.
His son, Graham, said his father passed away Tuesday at his home in Wolfville, N.S., from a heart condition after years of coping with a variety of health issues.
"Our father had various illnesses over more than 20 years, including prostate cancer, some heart problems, he had a pacemaker, he had emphysema."
But Colville told The Canadian Press that his celebrated father seemed able to "surmount all of these things" and was doing fine until recently.
"He was still up and around in his own house in Wolfville, " Colville said. "He had a cat, he was enjoying life. I sat with him for a few minutes and that really turned out to be the last conversation we had."
"He then went into rather steep decline overnight that Friday and early Saturday morning and he was in great discomfort and from then on it was a downhill course."
Colville said his father did not go to a hospital and received "tremendous support" from his two regular caregivers and visiting nurses.
A painter, engraver, sketch artist and muralist, Colville earned a reputation for crafting tranquil compositions that focused on routine moments of family life and featured landscapes, animals and the sea.
His work was accessible, memorable and reached millions of Canadians through a myriad of avenues including art galleries, magazines, book covers, postcards, posters, television, coins and even via the cover of a Bruce Cockburn record album.
But Colville said his father`s artistry also extended beyond Canada`s border, sometimes in unexpected ways.
"I must say, I (felt) slight surprise when I saw Stanley Kubrick's film 'The Shining' and I suddenly realized my father's paintings were in the background in numerous scenes. They were implanted in that film as almost subliminal messages."
Colville also noted with pride that in 1962, the New York Times used his father's painting called "Elm Tree at Horton Landing," to illustrate a front page review of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring."
With his focus on the ordinary, some have been tempted to crown the Maritimer as Canada's Norman Rockwell. Robert Fulford has simply described Colville as "our painter laureate" and "a great national icon-maker."
Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter said in a statement Wednesday that Colville himself became a Canadian cultural icon. Dexter said Colville's "legacy will continue to be celebrated and interpreted by new generations of Canadian artists and art lovers."
Colville began his career as a military artist and famously documented troops landing at Juno Beach on D-Day, becoming the most prominent painter to document Canada's involvement in the Second World War.
Graham Colville said the war deeply affected his father.
"His experiences as a war artist really marked him for life and he continued really for decades to have nightmares about the war, possibly until even quite recently. It made a very deep impression."
After the war, Colville forged a unique hyper-realist style that eschewed fashionable trends towards abstract and expressionist art.
"No other modern painter is so unconscious of prevailing fashion and so indifferent to what's new in the art world," literary critic John Bayley said of Colville in his book "Elegy for Iris."
Colville's images managed to elicit feelings of both contemplation and angst through the pairing of incongruous elements such as a languid nude with a gun or a blond toddler next to a large black dog with prominent claws.
Even his most serene compositions were infused with a sense of unease.
"I see life as inherently dangerous. I have an essentially dark view of the world and human affairs," Colville once said.
"Anxiety is the normality of our age."
Colville's rigorously crafted works included "To Prince Edward Island," "Nude and Dummy" and "Horse and Train," which Cockburn put on the jacket of his 1973 album "Night Vision."
Colville's 1953 piece "Man on Verandah" sold for $1.29 million at an auction in November 2010, setting a record for a work by a living Canadian artist.
His technique involved a painstaking process of multiple drawings, precise geometry and carefully applied blots of paint, often taking months.
Chances are good that many Canadians carried an example of Colville's work in their own pocket at one time or another -- he designed a series of coins for the 1967 centennial that put a mackerel on the dime, a hare on the nickel and a dove with outstretched wings on the penny.
Colville was born Aug. 24, 1920 in Toronto. He moved to Amherst, N.S. as a boy with his family and studied fine arts at Mount Allison University. He graduated in 1942 and married that same year in Wolfville, N.S.
His wife and muse, Rhoda Colville, died in December 2012 at the couple's home in Wolfville.
"The loss of our mother after more than 70 years of marriage at the end of last year was a terrible blow because they were extremely close as a couple," Colville said on Tuesday night.
After they married, Colville served in the Canadian Army from 1942 to 1946, working as a military artist from 1944 to 1946. He then taught painting and art history at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., where the couple raised three sons and a daughter.
From the early 1950s, Colville became closely associated with the American "regionalist" school of painting exemplified by Andrew Wyeth, as well as the American Precisionists of the 1930s.
The National Gallery of Canada began collecting his work in the '50s but it was not until he gained exhibitions in Hanover, Germany and London, England in 1969 and 1970 that commercial success would build.
Colville left the university in 1963 to devote himself to painting, but would return to teaching a few years later for stints that included visiting professor at University of California in 1967 and visiting artist in Berlin in 1971.
He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967, and made Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982. He won a Governor General's Visual and Media Arts Award in 2003.
He also served on several provincial and national boards, including the Canada Council and the National Gallery of Canada, and was chancellor of Nova Scotia's Acadia University from 1981 to 1991.
Colville was predeceased by his wife Rhoda and their middle son, John. In addition to Graham, Colville is survived by a second son, Charles, and a daughter, Ann.