At first glance, Alex Colville’s paintings are portraits of everyday life. They represent the people and situations that are familiar to all of us. But after careful inspection, you begin to suspect that there is something sinister lying beneath, a threat of something waiting to happen. Perhaps it’s the distinctive pointillism of his later works that give the viewer this feeling, the tiny brushstrokes of color not forming a full picture until viewed at a distance.
Alex Colville (24 August 1920 – 16 July 2013) was a revered Canadian painter, known both as Canada’s Norman Rockwell as well as Canada’s painter laureate. He was born in Toronto, Ontario, and moved with his family when he was 9 years old to Amherst, Nova Scotia. He would spend most of his life on the east coast, founding the Maritime Realism style.
Colville turned down an opportunity to go to law school to pursue an art degree at Mount Allison University, where he met his future wife and muse, Rhoda Wright. They were married in 1942 just before Colville enlisted in the army. After two years serving in the infantry, he was promoted to lieutenant, and eventually was made a war artist in 1944.
Trials & Tribulation
Two events would shape Colville for the rest of his life. The first was a bad bought of pneumonia when he was just 9 years old, shortly after his family had moved to Nova Scotia. Colville remembered the event as traumatizing and very isolating and attributed the experience of becoming a withdrawn and introverted person. This was also when he began sketching and making intricate models.
The second event was witnessing the concentration camps at Bergen-Belsen. As a war artist, Colville felt strongly that it was his duty to portray the war accurately. He would make drawings and sketches of what he saw and later paint the scenes. His works can now be found in the Canadian War Museum. While some of his paintings were criticized for being emotionally detached, particularly Bodies in a Grave (1946) Colville chalks it up to the body’s defense mechanism to remove themselves from the situations. “Screaming doesn’t accomplish anything,” he said, however, his wife described years later that he still had nightmares about the war, and the horrors that he captured.
Darkness of Humanity
As a countermeasure to the chaos of the war, the artist became increasingly orderly in how he managed his day, and how he painted. Colville simultaneously described himself as an upbeat person, “a person who likes morning better than evening,” but also having “an essentially dark view of the world and human affairs.” The contradictions between order and chaos are the main theme in Colville’s life and works.
One of his best-known paintings, Horse and Train (1954) juxtaposes a horse, representing nature, against a train, mechanical and unyielding. The two rush at each other, leaving the audience uncomfortable about what might happen next. Colville’s son Graham described seeing the painting in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, and expressed surprise to realize that his father’s paintings “were implanted in that film almost as subliminal messages.”
His portraits often feature himself and his wife. Unlike Rockwell, who portrays his figures together and touching, Colville usually keeps his figures apart, allowing them to counterbalance each other and have their own space. This can be seen in Family and Rainstorm (1955), and Verandah (1983).
After the war, Colville went back to Mount Allison as a teacher, where he remained until 1963 before devoting himself to painting. His legacy can be seen in the influence he had on his students over those years, particularly Christopher and Mary Pratt.