“I don’t think there’s such a thing as an evil animal.” —Alex Colville
Animals played a leading role in Colville’s daily life and in his art. Colville viewed animals as essentially innocent – incapable of malice unless conditioned so by humans. Many of the animals in Colville’s works act as powerful warning beacons, signalling potential tragedy. Animals are also companions. As Colville himself admitted, “Our life has consisted of this procession of pets.” He had an especially close relationship with his dogs. Walking and grooming his dog were parts of Colville’s everyday routine. Although his careful depictions of these activities may seem benign, they provoke revealing questions about why we turn to animals for companionship, loyalty and love.
Alex Colville, Child and Dog 1952 Glazed tempera on Masonite 80.9 × 60.8 cm National Gallery of Canada (no.6257), purchased 1954 © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
Colville boldly explores issues of trust and vulnerability between humans and animals in this portrait of a girl and her dog. The cherubic toddler is unintimidated by the animal’s bold stare and studded collar. Looking in from the outside, we are not so trusting. You can’t help feeling uncomfortable as Colville pulls us into a tightly composed scene to view the encounter at eye level. Like most of the dogs in his paintings, this canine was based on a family pet: “[He] was a big mongrel dog and our children were very young. And he was very protective of the children so he would scare other children or adults if he thought they might harm our kids.” Colville decided to put the dog down after a neighbour complained about the animal. He described this decision as an “enormous regret.”
Alex Colville, Seven Crows 1980 Acrylic on Masonite 50 × 120 cm Collection of the Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University, gift of Ross B. Eddy 1995.2 © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
Seven for a Secret: Colville’s Crows
“The crows saw what happened. Other birds were in the high branches and they saw too, but crows are different. They are interested. Other birds saw a series of actions. The crows saw the murder.”
—Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Way the Crow Flies
Like Alex Colville’s dogs, crows are highly intelligent beings that have co-evolved with humans. They watch us and learn from us, and literally feed off the remains of human society (garbage, carrion). Colville admired crows’ apparent willingness to help clean up our messes. Here he paints a murder of seven crows soaring over a winding river and its surrounding fields. Like a neighbourhood patrol, these birds seem to have a distinct claim to the landscape, flying with purpose and belonging.
Why seven? A nursery rhyme offers us a clue: “One for sorrow / Two for joy / Three for a girl / Four for a boy / Five for silver / Six for gold / Seven for a secret / Never to be told.” What do the crows know that they are not telling us?
Alex Colville, Dog and Priest 1978 Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard 52 × 90 cm Collection of Jean and Bill Teron © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
This painting, in which a sleek and noble-looking dog supersedes a man of the cloth, underscores Colville’s deep reverence for animals. The dog’s head obscures the face of the priest, with the dog’s collar appearing in the place of the minister’s usual white neckline. The dog appears dignified, wise and good, with his yellow eyes gazing out across the water, but what does this say about the priest behind him?
Alex Colville, Hound in Field 1958 Casein tempera on Masonite 76.3 × 101.5 cm National Gallery of Canada (no.7163), purchased 1959 © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
Alex Colville, Moon and Cow 1963 Oil and synthetic resin on hardboard 68.5 × 91.4 cm Private collection © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
Alex Colville, Dog and Groom 1991 Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard 62.4 × 72 cm Private collection © A.C. Fine Art Inc.
Here, Colville reveals his deep respect for animals with a role reversal: a man serving his dog. The painting shows a caring and trusting relationship. The man’s hand under the dog’s neck steadies the animal, rather than restraining it. As in many of Colville’s representations of people, the man is distracted by his task, while the dog looks straight at the viewer, seeing what the man cannot. Colville was forthright about his admiration for dogs: “If it were a question of reincarnation — that is, being embodied again, literally — I wouldn’t mind just being a dog. Their lives seem to me to be entirely innocent.”
© The Colville Estate, 2014.
Alex Colville and Sam, 1957.
© The Colville Estate, 2014.
Colville on the balcony of his apartment in Berlin, during a residency there, 1971.
Photo by Andrew Clyde Little. Courtesy of Dolce Little.
Colville and Min, around 1990.
“I’ve always been rather interested in horses. It’s curious to know how one’s mind gets filled with images, but I recall watching the funeral, as I suppose many people did, with great interest, and being impressed with the black, riderless horse.” —Alex Colville
Like so many others, Alex Colville witnessed the end of an era when American President John. F Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. JFK’s funeral procession was the most important event in television history, viewed by 93 per cent of homes with televisions. Following behind Kennedy’s flag-draped casket is Black Jack, the President’s horse, skittish and not quite keeping in step. In a rare reference to a specific event, Colville reimagines Black Jack galloping across a churchyard. The sleek thoroughbred appears out of place in this rural setting: a sign that something is not right. Colville positions the horse’s innocence and strength in stark opposition to the stormy skies of a troubled world, in a graveyard stripped down to a single headstone.
Alex Colville Church and Horse, 1964 acrylic on hardboard 55.5 x 68.7 cm 55.5 x 68.7 cm The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest and anonymous donor. Photo MMFA, Christine Guest. © A.C.Fine Art Inc
25 November 1963, SP/4 David S. Schwartz, U. S. Army