David B. Milne
1882 – 1953
“Do you like flowers? So do I, but I never paint them. I didn’t even see the hepaticas. I saw, instead, an arrangement of the lines, spaces, hues, values and relations that I habitually use. That is, I saw one of my own pictures, a little different from ones done before, changed slightly, very slightly, by what I saw before me.”
(David Milne, 1936)
For David Milne, painter, printmaker, and writer, the process of art and not the content was paramount. His austere work and his pure aesthetic depended on the formulation and solution of certain formal, artistic problems and the consistent development and concentration of his inner self. In simple terms, Milne sought to reduce a painting to its essentials.
At the age of twenty-one, Milne left Canada to study art at the Art Student’s League in New York from 1903-05. He supported himself by doing commercial design and painted in his spare time. In 1917, he joined the Canadian army and was sent to Europe. After the war, he painted camp scenes and deserted battlefields for the Canadian War Records. He returned to New York State for another ten years. In 1929, Milne returned permanently to Canada, first settling in Temagami, then Weston, then at Palgrave, Six Mile Lake, Toronto, Uxbridge, and finally at Baptiste Lake near Bancroft, Ontario. A change in place for Milne always resulted in a change of colour, form, and theme in his work.
By 1934, with the patronage of Alice and Vincent Massey, Milne’s work was seen by Alan Jarvis ( later he would become the Director of the National Gallery) and Douglas Duncan who became Milne’s agent. Through Duncan, the work of this recluse and individual painter became better known in Canada.
Milne was strongly influenced by both American and French Impressionism, especially the work of Claude Monet and by Henri Matisse. Milne integrated these influences into his own special way of seeing and painting. He painted the simplest subjects – houses, barns, flowers, trees and still lifes – but it was the landscape that dominated much of his production. Milne was also an exceptionally gifted writer and used words as a part of the process to unfold his vision. His journals and painting notes reveal his observations and thoughts about his painting method, and artistic process.
In the last 15 years of his life, Milne began to paint a series of fantasies. These may have been inspired by children’s paintings and possibly by the birth of his only child in 1941.
Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada
MILNE, David Brown
Born near Paisley, Bruce County, Ontario, the sixth and youngest child of the Milnes, parents of five sons and one daughter. They moved to the town of Paisley when David was still an infant. There the family lived a frugal existence from the produce of a small market garden and a home laundry. David was much younger than his nearest brother and probably spent many hours by himself. He started drawing with great enthusiasm before he entered kindergarten. His interest in art continued but after graduating from the Paisley high school he became a country schoolteacher. After several years he decided to study painting in New York City. With borrowed money from his brother Jim and some of his own earnings, he travelled there and enrolled in a school which closed shortly afterwards so he entered the Art Students’ League in 1903. For six months he studied under George Bridgman and Frank V. Dumond and afterwards continued studies part time while gradually developing his art. When money ran out he turned to commercial art to support himself. He canvassed shops throughout Manhattan Island for orders to make signs, showcards, window dressing, and he also did some illustration work which was an arduous experience for both publisher and artist. His earnings were meagre and often he ended the day by cooking an egg over a gas jet (for lighting) by standing on a chair. During his struggles he met another aspiring painter named Amos Engle and they pooled their resources by sharing a loft over a Greek restaurant on East 42nd Street. Although they were materially poor their experience was rich with learning and excitement. They attended all the famous exhibitions like the presentations by Durand-Ruel (dealer to the French Impressionists) or shows at the Stieglitz Gallery 291 owned and operated by the famous American photographer who first showed the art of Rodin and Matisse in 1908 and later paintings by Cézanne, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and American artists like Demuth, Dove, Hartley, Marin and much later O’Keefe (whom Stieglitz married). They witnessed the rebel exhibition of The Eight (Luke, Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Shinn, Lawson, Prendergast and Davies). The work of Maurice Prendergast, one of The Eight, was of special interest to Milne. Deeply involved with experiments in impressionistic painting, Milne was particularly influenced by Prendergast and the French Impressionists Monet and Seurat. He applied patches of paint in almost mosaic or sometimes quilt-like fashion for a decade or more. During his stay in New York he exhibited his paintings in various exhibitions including the American Water Color Society; Pennsylvania Academy and Spring and Autumn shows at the Montross Gallery. His work was noticed by James Clarke, an advertising artist, while viewing an exhibition with fellow artists. Clarke was so impressed with Milne’s work that he decided to track him down. He located Milne and Engle living in their quarters above a Greek restaurant around the year 1912. In the years that followed Clarke became Milne’s patron and closest friend. In 1913 five of Milne’s paintings were chosen for the exhibition in the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory, New York City. This huge show was arranged under the auspices of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and included works from Ingres through to contemporary art of Europe and America. Artists whose works were exhibited included Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Leger, Derain, Vlaminck, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Duchamp, Delacroix, Cézanne, Monet, Redon and Van Gogh. In all, thirteen hundred pieces of art were shown including the paintings of three Canadians, Ernest Lawson, Arthur Crisp and Milne. Milne’s contribution consisted of five paintings: Little Figures, Distorted Tree, Columbus Circle (now Billboard), The Garden and Reclining Figure. Of these Columbus Circle or Billboard was acquired by Douglas Duncan and then the National Gallery of Canada. Working as a window dresser Milne did jobs for a drug store in which a bookkeeper Patsy Hegarty, was employed. They enjoyed one another’s company and after six years were married. During Milne’s stay in New York he made weekend trips to the country where he must have pondered a better life away from the city. He spent the summer of 1915 in the Catskill Mountains and this experience convinced him more than ever that his survival was to be had only in the country. They left New York City in 1916 because of the increase in economic pressure and settled at Boston Corners near Millerton, N.Y. eighty or so miles north of New York City. There he turned all his energies to painting using dry-brush water colours and oils. Some of his work of this period can be seen in public collections like Boston Corner, 1917 (NGC); Boston Corners, 1916 (McMichael); The Mountains, 1917 (NGC); Trees in Spring, 1916 (formerly D. Duncan Coll.); Reflections, 1916 (NGC); The Boulder, 1916 (WAG). By then the First World War had been raging for four years. He decided to return to Toronto, in 1918 and enlisted in the Canadian Army as a private. After regular training he arrived at Kinmel Park Camp, near Rhyl, North Wales, where he was taken on permanent staff. The camp was a segregation point set up in 1918 for quarantining incoming drafts from Canada against infectious diseases, and for testing their general readiness before moving them to advanced training battalions in the south of England. While at this camp Milne became aware of the programme of employing artists (the hiring was being done by Paul Konody). He cabled a friend (probably Clarke) to rush thirty of his paintings to England as he was required to show samples of his work. The paintings were viewed and Milne was chosen as a war artist. In the spring of 1919 he was formally taken on strength of Headquarters, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, London, and after having completed thirty-seven paintings in various camps in England he sailed for France with the status of official war artist and the rank of lance-corporal. He went directly to the Vimy-Arras area where he remained until the end of July, 1919. Next he painted in the Ypres-Passchendaele area, and the Somme. Of the seventy paintings he did on the Continent, fifty-two were done in France and eighteen in Belgium. He returned to England briefly then sailed for Canada on the S.S. Belgic and was released from the army in Toronto on October 14, 1919. R.F. Wodehouse, Curator of War Art, NGC, noted his work as follows: Milne’s war paintings, all in drybrush water colour technique, reveal the aftermath of war; very seldom, if at all, do they convey its drama or horror. The devastated buildings, battlefields, views of military camps and towns are depicted in an elegant, tasteful and clean manner. These paintings represent a personal vision of things seen after the cessation of hostilities rather than a graphic description of the path left by war. At the outset Milne’s style was rather tentative but quite rapidly crystalized into a highly individual idiom which remained almost unchanged long after the time he was a war artist. Milne returned to Boston Corners in December of 1919 and to his painting. But within a year he ran out of money. Patsy went to work in N.Y. as a clerk during the winter and they also got a loan from James Clarke. David remained at Boston Corners in a hut he built of saplings, tarpaper and moss, where he continued to paint. Several of the paintings he did can be seen at the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Conservation Collection. The Milnes then found jobs at Big Moose in the Adirondacks in a summer resort. David built a shack there from an abandoned carpenter’s locker. Then for the next two summers they stayed in a newly bought cottage of James Clarke in exchange for some carpentry to the interior. In the summers they rented a cottage which Patsy then ran as a tea room but in the fall of 1923 David was off to Ottawa with the hope of starting a painting class. Once there he had trouble finding students. Patsy settled in Montreal where she found a job as a housekeeper-companion and in her spare time tried to interest Montreal art dealers in giving David a solo show. He made trips to Montreal periodically. Finally The Art Association of Montreal agreed in 1924 to exhibit eighty of his water colours. No paintings were sold at a time when they badly needed money. In Ottawa however he managed to sell six water colours to the National Gallery of Canada and his work was chosen for showing at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (1924-25). During his stay in Ottawa he painted scenes of the city from his hotel room, and from the Hull side of the Ottawa River. A painting from this period is Old R.C.M.P. Barracks, Ottawa, No. 2 (NGC) and, in Montreal Carnival Dress, Dominion Square, Montreal (AEAC). The Milnes returned to the United States in the spring of 1924, secured another loan from Clarke and purchased a lot at Big Moose and built a house which took several summers to complete. David spent weeks cutting three large slabs of stone out of a boulder for their fireplace, installed the wiring, carved trillium shaped reflectors and other decorations. Finally the living room could be used for a tearoom to help provide them with some income. They also ran a ski canteen at Lake Placid for several winters for added income. Their tearoom venture lost money. David did manage to do a number of sketches around Lake Placid which he made into colour drypoints (see NGC coll. from D. Duncan). His first prints were in two or three colours reproduced on copper sheets (purchased from a hardware store). His first printing press was an ordinary washing machine wringer. Then James Clarke gave him an etching press with the understanding that Clarke himself would receive one print of everything Milne did and the use of the press on occasion. In 1928 the Milnes sold their house and left everything behind at Big Moose, with the exception of David’s paintings now close to two thousand. They moved to Canada and spent the summer at Lake Temagami, Ontario (see J.R. Harper, P.323) and the winter at Weston. Then they moved to Palgrave, northwest of Toronto, where they used as furniture, the packing cases in which Milne had shipped his paintings from Big Moose. The Market crash of 1929 affected nearly everyone. The purchaser of their house at Big Moose was unable to keep up regular payments which put the Milnes short of money. Living was hard, food was scarce, but David kept right on painting. In 1934 he wrote either the National Gallery or Vincent Massey (see Dennis Reid, P.171) proposing a scheme for the sale of a large number of his works as a collection in itself. Although this scheme was not fully realized, Massey bought most of his paintings done between 1929 and 1934 (his Canadian period) and then organized a one-man show of Milne’s work at the Mellors Gallery, Toronto. It was through this show that Milne found new patrons. By then he was living at Six Mile Lake, near Georgian Bay, by himself. It was around this time that Kenneth Wells of The Toronto Telegram related the following story, S.S. Finlay, of the Northern Vocational School, came upon him (Milne) over a year ago, as he paddled his canoe down the grey-green waters of the Severn. ‘We came around a bend in the river,’ says Mr. Finlay, ‘and we came upon a man no longer young, but not yet old, sitting in his canoe and painting. We learned that he had come from Owen Sound way – Tom Thomson’s boyhood stamping ground, you know – that he had purchased his canoe, second-hand, in Orillia, and was finding life on the river pleasant and cheap. We looked at his sketch. It was quite good. We said good-day and passed on.’ That was last summer. This summer Mr. Finlay was back up in the country of grey-green water and red stone, . . . ‘I was lying back, reading,’ he said, ‘when the door opened and a man tramped in. He was brown as a nut, dressed in well-worn rough clothing, and wearing shoes that threatened to splinter the floor. I looked at him a second time. It was my friend of last year . . . this man of the towns had gone into the woods and built himself a cabin. With equipment that would have disheartened an Indian, and with next to no money, he had cut trees, built the cabin, lived the winter, and found spring come round again with the love of life still in him. It was his greatest boast that not once had he to wear his overcoat to bed, and that he had been able to get the door on his cabin before Christmas. He’s strong, and intent, and no man is his master. What more could he buy with a million?’ At one time Milne visited a country school where he developed a rapport with the children drawing upon his early experience no doubt when he was a schoolteacher. He became interested in how a child might imagine religious themes free from the traditional religious art. From this experience and others he painted a series of illustrations for Bible stories as humorous fantasies and he treated other subjects in the same way. A number of them were purchased by Douglas Duncan and later acquired by public galleries. They include: The Saint, No. 2 (NGC), Snow in Bethlehem (AGO); Noah and the Ark and Mount Ararat (NGC); Ascension No. 2 (NGC); Ascension, No. 4 (NGC). Many of these fantasies were painted in the early forties. In 1935 Douglas Duncan and Alan Jarvis having seen Milne’s paintings at the Mellors Gallery decided to pay him a visit at Six Mile Lake. Both Jarvis and Duncan later became his life long friends. Duncan began to exhibit his paintings annually at the Picture Loan Society in Toronto. The Mellors Gallery continued to exhibit Milne’s work until 1938, then Duncan became his agent. He assured Milne of a fixed income by making a series of personal purchases in addition to the regular sales made at the Picture Loan Society. Jarvis then aged 21 wrote what was probably the second formal article on Milne for The Undergraduate (Univ. Tor. paper) in 1936 (Buchanan wrote the first). He noted, Milne is concerned primarily with line and pattern. His method is, therefore to brush in, in detail, all the line first and this drawing is made ‘more readable’ by the addition of values and colour. The scheme of values which Milne employs consists of two dark values (ivory black and near black), two middle value greys and two light values (zinc white and off-white). ‘If the drawing could be made completely readable by the use of values’, Milne has written, ‘there would be no need for colour.’ Since line and values alone are not sufficient Milne employs a limited palette of six or seven hues. He uses eleven raw pigments for which he derives the six values and the hues proper: warm green, a variable yellow, warm red and cool red, a variable purple or violet and a constant blue. To heighten the forcefulness of his compositions Milne has developed a number of original pattern-schemes the most notable of which is the use of blank space. Twenty-six years afterwards Jarvis produced the book David Milne as part of a series of books on Canadian artists. Just three years before Milne’s death, Donald W. Buchanan wrote the following: For years David Milne lived alone in the woods of Muskoka in a tiny hut, which was protected from the elements only by a few strips of tar paper. But he was content. Although his income was meagre, he still had enough to pay for oils and canvas and for paper and paint for his water-colours. On arriving by canoe to visit him in his isolated abode, you would be welcomed by him warmly; then, given the chance, he would talk about art and criticism, about books and exhibitions, and go on to relate his memories of the great paintings he had seen years before in New York and Europe. When he had reached the peak of his enthusiasm, he would speak in praise of John Constable, who had produced ‘art one could really believe in.’ ‘Not, mind you,’ he would continue, Constable’s heavy paintings, his large gallery pictures’ – and he would pause to mention how Constable had lived in a society weighted down with the desire for material possessions and had tried to conform to it by exhibiting canvases made to Academy measurements – ‘but those little sketches that he produced when he was himself, they are worth everything else he ever did.’ In such works was Milne’s own personality revealed. The pursuit of plenty of time to himself, to muse upon the pattern of the forest outside his door or upon arrangements of bowls and bunches of wild flowers in his hut – time, too, for painting them again and again in compositions set down lightly and quickly, with compression of feeling and economy of means. So, partly in order to save money and partly to have all the days and hours he wanted for painting, he had taken to the woods to live, first on the shores of Lake Temagami in northern Ontario, then, after a brief period in a farming village, in this one-room cabin in a remote corner of Muskoka, a few miles from Georgian Bay, where he dwelt from 1932 to 1939. ‘Since art is aesthetic emotion, exhausting, to be sustained intensely for only a short time, the more quickly readable a picture is the greater its power,’ he once wrote. Over the years he has sought to perfect a technique which would give these results. The method he achieved was based partly on a broken impressionist line, useful in illustration, which he picked up at an early stage, before 1910, about the time he finished his studies in New York. Taken by itself, this method was superficial enough, but developed and elaborated as it was by Milne, it soon became something both intimate and at the same time compelling in the very briefness of its visual references. This can be seen from the water-colour, The Mountains, 1917 (NGC) which was done in 1920 in the Adirondacks. In the most characteristic work, he tends to note the actual scene before him in a few sensitive lines of drawing, then he adds an almost mathematical balance of large areas of white and black or other dark values, and finally he enlivens the composition with many small and delicate touches of local colour. The colours he uses, however, are rarely linked directly to Nature; he employs them more often for decorative than for realistic effects. This cool and intellectual approach of his is the product of long years of thought and reflection, of years of solitude devoted to the study of his craft. In 1939 David and Patsy Milne parted. That same year he left Six Mile Lake and settled at Toronto for the next fourteen months. Then he moved to Uxbridge where he lived from 1940 to 1952. He spent six autumns at Coboconk (Gull Foot Lake) in the West Haliburton district of Ontario. He married Kathleen Pavey a registered nurse and they had one son, David Milne Jr. In 1952 he moved to Bancroft, Ontario, and he suffered a stroke in November and died at Baptiste Lake the day after Christmas, 1953. A David Milne catalogue containing his paintings and writings is now in preparation by his son David Milne Jr. and David P. Silcox. One-man shows of Milne’s paintings include: Cornell University Ithaca, N.Y. (1922); Art Association of Montreal (1924); Mellors Gallery, Tor. (1934); James Wilson & Co., Ott. (1935); Mellors Gal. Tor. (1935-38); W. Scott & Sons, Mtl. (1935); Picture Loan Society (1938-53); National Gallery of Canada, Ott. (1955 circulated); The Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ont. (1967 shown at LondAG; WilAG; SarnAG; Kit-WatAG; Rod.HalArtCen.; WAG; QProvM); Galerie Godard Lefort, Mtl. (1971); Nat. Gal. Can. (1973, circulated). His work was shown in the following group shows: Panama Pacific Exhibition, San Francisco (Silver Medal, 1915); Exposition d’art canadien, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, Fr. (1927); Exhibit, Contemporary Canadian Painting, Southern Dominions of Brit. Empire (1936); Cent. Can. Art, Tate Gal., Lond., Eng. (1938); Aspects of Contemporary Painting in Canada, Addison Gal. of Amer. Art, Andover, Mass. (1942); Can. Art 1760-1943, Yale Univ. Art Gal. (1944); Exh. of Internat. Modern Art, Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris (1946); Forty years of Canadian Painting, MFA, Boston, Mass. (1949); Can. Painting, NGA, Wash., D.C. (1950); Can. sect., Sao Paulo Biennial, Brazil (1951, 400th Anniv., 1954); Biennale, Venice, Italy (1952); Florida State Fair, Tampa (1952); Can. Painting, Pakistan, India, and Ceylon (1954-55); German Industries Exhibition, Berlin (1955, 1957); Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art, NGC (1967); others. Member: CGP; CSPWC; CSGA.
Colin S. MacDonald
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada