John Armstrong

Milne gets Pantheon treatment

David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings
By David Milne Jr. and David P. Silcox
University of Toronto Press 1998
Two Volumes, 1,222 pages, $500

David B. Milne was born in Bruce County, Ontario, in 1882, and died in 1953 some 200 miles away in Bancroft. However, his unique position in Canadian art history is in large part based on his artistic apprenticeship in and about New York City from 1903 until 1916. Relatively early on in his career, Milne exhibited five paintings at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, the exhibition in which key figures in the development of European modernism — Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp — were shown alongside their more conventional American counterparts. Although Milne had absorbed many of the European avant-garde’s ideas prior to his inclusion in the Armory Show (particularly those of Matisse and the Fauve circle of painters), Milne’s link to this contentious exhibition establishes an early presence for Canadian art in the evolution of modernism in North America.

In the mid-1970s, while I was an art student, Milne’s work still had great currency: his watercolours appeared to be comfortable in amongst the contemporary painting on view in the commercial galleries handling his work in Toronto and Montreal; in 1973, a profusely illustrated article on the artist, based on research for an up-coming catalogue raisonné, appeared in the visual arts magazine, artscanada. Milne’s emphatic line and sectioned-off areas of often bright colour mirrored much 1970s representational painting, as did the inclusion of pop-cultural bric-a-brac in many of his later still-lifes — beer bottles, weekend comic pages, pickle bottles (Heinz), even bricks.

As well, Milne’s determination to depict, at an intimate scale, what was immediately at hand while attending to a highly idiosyncratic abstraction of his landscape and still-life “motives” seemed to offer both support for and a sidelong critique of the self-satisfied, large-scale abstract paintings of the day. If the 1980s and ‘90s allowed for fewer apparent connections between Milne and contemporary artists, some do exist: the celestial occurrences depicted by Penetanguishene landscape painter John Hartman gesture toward Milne’s late fantasy paintings, for example. Milne’s formal rigour, reserve, and occasional mordant wit have, over time, served his paintings well.

After nearly 30 years of scholarly moil, David Milne Jr. (the artist’s son) and David P. Silcox (director of the University of Toronto Art Centre) have produced their long-anticipated catalogue raisonné, the first such publication to be devoted to any Canadian artist. In it, David B. Milne’s considerable oeuvre of over 2,500 watercolour and oil paintings is carefully reproduced and painstakingly authenticated in an authoritative, if not a bit imposing (not to mention very pricey), two-volume work that should become a standard reference tool in Canadian libraries.

The authors accomplish more here than an exhaustive checklist of artworks for use by students, art historians and auction houses; the catalogue will also provide a wide readership with an opportunity to either acquaint themselves with, or to survey in their entirety, the paintings of this important Canadian artist. With nearly 200 colour, and innumerable black-and-white illustrations, these volumes handsomely accomplish their task. The catalogue is part of a four-volume project that also includes a biography written by Silcox and a forthcoming selection of the artist’s writings edited by Milne Jr.

The authors divide the relentless march of chronological entries into 36 sections, each prefaced with by a two- or three-page narrative outlining their travails in chasing down authentication and provenance, as well as Milne’s personal and professional life. Their tone is direct and accessible, if occasionally adulatory, and they seldom stray far from the physical circumstances of Milne’s biography or artwork. Included with the catalogue entries are transcriptions of Milne’s own letters, diary entries and other writings describing the production of individual paintings, and frankly discussing reasons for the paintings’ possible success. Milne’s correspondence (with a longtime friend and, later, his dealer, patrons, and others) offers first-hand, focused commentary on his creative process that is by turns searching, analytical, poetic — the catalogue’s real treasure.

By mid-career, we find Milne writing astute formal analyses of his graphic and simplified image-making: “a [painting] is merely a drawing made readable”; black may serve (as it does in Milne’s severely limited palettes) as a colour. Milne explains that he uses meticulous painted lines when beginning a painting “to engage and tire the eye quickly.” He then works up larger shapes in “difficult middle tones,” the complex, chromatic grays used to such wonderful effect. Skies are “an area of rest, a refuge,” and his occasional, dramatic use of white, creates a “dazzle area,” to “violently” engage the viewer’s attention. Milne worked at a modest scale — a 22-by-28-inch painting was a “record breaker.” Although Milne would work repeatedly over his paintings and revisit the same subjects, his small paintings were never scaled up to larger, more finished works.

Catalogues raisonné may extend documentation of a work of art in a number of ways. The present catalogue usefully contains a complete bibliography assembled by Elizabeth Driver and a list of Milne exhibitions compiled by Liz Wylie; both were research associates on this project. Also, the individual catalogue entries are sometimes accompanied by extracts from the critical response Milne received in his lifetime; it would have been helpful to have included (and even commented upon) excerpts from more recent Milne scholarship. Perhaps the already prodigious length of the catalogue prevented the authors from doing so. Each entry does provide citations for such critical writing. For readers wishing a concise overview of how Milne’s paintings interacted with the art and thought of his time, I recommend the work by art historian John O’Brian, listed below.

In the catalogue’s presentation of Milne’s turn-of-the-century rural houses, deserted First World War battlefields (he worked as a war artist) or the near-caustic effect of sunlight on tree tops, we are encouraged to reconstruct the path of Milne’s often reclusive life. And, through Milne’s writing, we read vivid accounts of his splashing through the wet fields of Northern France to find an ideal perch from which to paint a wartime cemetery, or of his Henry David Thoreau-like circlings in the forest reflecting on botanical minutiae found near a Nissen-hut studio he was to build. In Milne’s voice, we hear an insistence on the importance of his own experience, a kind of phenomenology of the ordinary. In the paintings, we see parallels between artillery craters in Flanders and abandoned mine shafts in Northern Ontario, an abandoned supply shed and the artist’s studio, as well as his longtime dedication to wildflowers. Now that we have a catalogue raisonné, other writers may go on to consider on how it was that Milne’s artwork encapsulated the period in which he lived, and what the paintings and writings of this fiercely independent artist might mean to us now.


John Armstrong is a Toronto artist who teaches painting at Sheridan College. In September, Winnipeg’s Plug-in Gallery will host a solo exhibition of his work.

Related Reading

Reflections in a Quiet Pool: The Prints of David Milne, by Rosemary Tovell (National Gallery of Canada, 1980).

David Milne and the Modern Tradition of Painting, by John O’Brian (Coach House, 1983).

“Milne gets Pantheon Treatment.” The Globe and Mail, January 30, 1999