Obituaries

Alex Colville, 92; captured Canadian life in paintings

Alex Colville in front of “Dog and Groom, 1991.”

KEITH BEATY/TORONTO STAR

Alex Colville in front of “Dog and Groom, 1991.”

NEW YORK — 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 July 16 at his home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his son Graham.

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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.

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In 2004 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.”

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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,” 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 in 1920. His family moved to Nova Scotia in 1929. He received a bachelor’s in fine arts at Mount Alison 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 Alison from 1946 until 1963, when he retired to paint full time. He continued to teach, holding visiting positions at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and in Germany.

In later years, he moved with his wife, the former Rhoda Wright, to Wolfville, her childhood home. Rhoda Colville was often 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 Rhoda Colville died in December.

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

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