An American Patron: Alex Colville and Lincoln Kirstein


Long viewed as one of Canada’s most important artists, Alex Colville (1920–2013) benefitted from the support of a dedicated patron early in his professional career. The enduring friendship between Colville and Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) is reflected in the Colville fonds, housed at the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives. In association with the exhibition Alex Colville, the NGC Library and Archives presents An American Patron: Alex Colville and Lincoln Kirstein, featuring correspondence and preparatory drawings from the Colville fonds.

Colville and Kirstein were introduced at Manhattan’s Hewitt Gallery in 1952. Kirstein became one of Colville’s earliest and most influential patrons, purchasing three paintings in the 1950s and many serigraphs into the 1980s. Colville and Kirstein maintained their early friendship through correspondence that would ultimately continue for over 30 years (approximately 1954 to 1985). Their letters covered a range of subjects, including straightforward descriptions of the authors’ personal and professional activities, and in-depth discussions on topics such as Realism, Abstract art, metaphysics and politics.


Alex Colville, Three Sheep (1954), casein tempera with graphite on Masonite. NGC. Bequest of Lincoln E. Kirstein, New York, 1996

Despite Kirstein’s early financial support of Colville, their correspondence indicates that the friendship consisted of more than buying and selling art. Kirstein forwarded books, art supplies and, most significantly, contacts in New York and abroad, to Colville. Through Kirstein, Colville met the American artists Paul Cadmus and Andrew Wyeth, as well as early dealers and buyers. Colville, in turn, would send Kirstein photographs of completed paintings and serigraphs, in search of his patron’s opinion. Colville purposely segregated himself from artists and art galleries by choosing to live away from busy cities and art centres, but his correspondence with Kirstein demonstrates that he remained engaged with, and aware of, trends in modern art. Through their correspondence, Kirstein became a sounding board for Colville’s reflections on art in general, as well as on his own progress as an artist.

Kirstein was a published author and art critic long before he met Colville. His writing was published as early as the 1930s, and he contributed catalogue introductions to the exhibitions American Realists and Magic Realists (1943) and Symbolic Realism in American Painting (1950), among others. Through his association with the Hewitt Gallery, Kirstein also organized exhibitions and wrote about American Realist artists.


Alex Colville, The Swimming Race [Study 2], 9 August 1958, ink on paper. NGC

Kirstein found an ally in Colville, whose Realist style appealed to Kirstein, who abhorred Abstract art and had a demonstrated interest in Realism. Kirstein published two essays on Colville — in Canadian Art in 1958 and in The Art of Alex Colville in 1972 — both of which set the artist apart from Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style at the time. Instead, in his essay for Canadian Art, Kirstein grouped Colville with British and American artists who “work unshaken by the dominant style; their own private personalities do not obsess them; what occupies them is their technique towards an increasingly sharp focus of their own vision of a tangible visible world.” Kirstein also praised Colville for the artist’s ability to preserve a moment in time: a feature that he felt set Realist painters apart from mainstream trends and Abstract art.

The frequency of the exchange of letters between Colville and Kirstein lessened into the 1970s and 1980s, yet the content of their letters kept pace with that of previous decades. Despite the passage of over 30 years, Kirstein continued to advise on art galleries and dealers, while also offering his comments on Colville’s work. By this time, Colville was well established as a successful artist, both in Canada and internationally. His continued correspondence with Kirstein underlines the value Colville placed on his formative patron’s opinion, support and friendship.


Alex Colville, The Swimming Race (1958), oil and synthetic resin on Masonite. NGC. Gift of Lincoln E. Kirstein, New York, 1962

Kirstein presented two of the three Colville paintings he purchased to the National Gallery of Canada: The Swimming Race (1958) — on view in Alex Colville — was donated in 1962, and Three Sheep (1954) in 1996. The archival documents presented in An American Patron are drawn from the Alex Colville fonds at the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives. The fonds, a gift from the artist, consists of two previous donations of student drawings, and a third donation of preparatory drawings, archival materials and books that arrived shortly before the artist passed away in 2013. The correspondence, sketches and photographs showcased in this exhibition are supplemented with copies of Colville’s letters to Kirstein; the originals are preserved in the Lincoln Kirstein papers at the New York Public Library.

The donation of the extensive Colville fonds makes it possible for the National Gallery of Canada to highlight one of the artist’s most valued professional friendships, while also touching upon the importance of Kirstein’s early patronage. An American Patron: Alex Colville and Lincoln Kirstein is on view at the Library of the National Gallery of Canada until September 7, 2015. The exhibition Alex Colville is also on view at the NGC until September 7.

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