Although Canadian painter David Milne (1882–1953) worked prolifically in several media—he produced some six thousand paintings and prints over fifty years—this retrospective focuses exclusively on his watercolors, which were central to his artistic process. Milne's watercolors are arguably his best and most important creations and were conceived as independent works of art. Often, the ideas and techniques developed first in his watercolors found application in his oil paintings and drypoints. He was technically innovative with wet-on-wet and drybrush painting, and he used unpainted white paper to infuse his images with a blinding light. Throughout his career, Milne's work balanced representation and abstraction. While his subjects were derived, for the most part, from the visible world—streets, people, landscapes—his artistic concerns always remained focused on the modernist precepts he had learned in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. In his art and his writings, Milne reinforced his belief that the formal elements of line, color, shape, and composition were paramount in the creation of a work of art.
Milne spent nearly twenty-five years working in the United States during the early part of his career (1903–18, 1920–21, 1924–29). Much of that time was spent in New York City, where he studied at the Art Students League of New York, and began to gain some acclaim in gallery shows and group exhibitions. Of particular importance was his inclusion in two of the era's most prestigious international exhibitions, the 1913 Armory Show in New York and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco—both times represented by his watercolors. Among the many works in the exhibition from this period is Dreamland Tower, Coney Island (1912), a night view of one of the four amusement parks in Brooklyn's famed Coney Island, brightly illuminated by thousands of light bulbs and stars—a subject that symbolized and celebrated the technological advancements of the modern world. Also included is a lively street scene, Three Hansoms (1912), quite possibly a view from Milne's studio near the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue that captures the city's congested pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The confluence of "old" and "new" New York is represented by old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages and ladies with parasols, as well as modern cars and buses, all vying for street space.
Milne's New York experience was interrupted by World War I. During the years 1918–19, just after the Armistice, he worked for the Canadian War Memorials program recording the battlefields in Europe where Canadian soldiers had fought and died. Upon his return to the United States he became increasingly more reclusive, retreating from the art world into the natural beauty and solitude of the Berkshire, Catskill, and Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.
Several works in the exhibition record Milne's impressions of this untampered landscape, which also reflected his interest in the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Among them is Reflections, Bishop's Pond (1920), which the artist said was painted at "the mirror time of day," when a subject and its reflection merge into a unified image, distinguished only by their differing textures. In Reflections, Glenmore Hotel (1923), painted at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, image and reflection are subsumed into an overall pattern of short dabs of paint that describe the outlines of the mountain and building, rather than their volume.
After a brief stay in Canada in 1923–24, Milne returned to Canada permanently in 1929, living in Ontario for the next twenty-four years, until his death in 1953. He had stopped painting watercolors in 1925, devoting his attention to oil painting and printmaking instead, but in 1937 took them up again as his principal means of expression. However, the artist's style and technique changed considerably during his twelve-year break. He no longer painted closely from observation, but rather created what he called "memory pictures," which opened up previously unexplored subjects, including fantasy and religious subjects. A late work from this period in the exhibition is Storm Over the Islands III (1951), one of a series of diaphanous visions he created using the wet-on-wet technique where watercolor was quickly brushed onto wet paper in a matter of minutes.
The exhibition is made possible by Rosamond Ivey.
The exhibition is organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.