The National Gallery of Canada, Library and Archives’ Acquisition of Alex Colville’s Preparatory Drawings

Alex Colville, Sleeper [Study 2], 24 January 1974, ink, dry coloured pigment, and paint on laid paper. National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Gift of Alex Colville, May 2013 (COL-SKBK51.12)

Shortly before he passed away on July 16, 2013, distinguished Canadian painter Alex Colville (1920–2013) donated nearly 3,000 preparatory drawings to the collection of the Library and Archives at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). The drawings were acquired along with professional and personal correspondence, including letters exchanged with writer and art connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) and author-philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919–1999). Other objects in the donation include personal diaries and agendas, photographs, degrees and awards, videos, reproductions of Colville’s work in books and periodicals, clippings, and plaster casts of designs for coins and medals.

The preparatory drawings donated by Colville are divided among 79 sketchbooks, with a significant collection of just over 1,200 unbound drawings completing the acquisition. With a few exceptions, this donation includes drawings ranging from 1945 to 1986: a prolific and formative period in Colville’s career. He continued to finish paintings and serigraphs well into the 2000s, and some of the drawings contained within this archive express concepts or compositions to which he returned throughout his career.

Alex Colville, Sleeper [Study 1], 14 December 1973, ink on wove paper. National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Gift of Alex Colville, May 2013 (COL-833)

Colville’s donation contains preparatory drawings for many works now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada. These include well-known early paintings such as The Swimming Race (1958) and To Prince Edward Island (1965), as well as later works such as the serigraph Fête champêtre (1984). In some cases, the archive of drawings shows the complete development of a work from the first quickly executed sketch to meticulous drawings of a single detail. Drawings within the donation also illustrate the geometry and mathematical calculations for which the artist is so well known. In the case of the serigraph Sleeper (1975), the NGC Library and Archives has acquired 23 unbound preparatory drawings, with an additional 34 drawings distributed across six of Colville’s sketchbooks. As with many of the other finished works represented in this acquisition, the drawings for Sleeper (NGC 40528) show the range of studies that Colville would produce for each painting or serigraph he created.

Alex Colville, Sleeper, 1975, serigraph on Harumi board, 47 x 57 cm; image: 43.3 x 55.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Mira Godard, Toronto, 2000 (NGC 40528)

Colville’s first known sketch for Sleeper was completed in December 1973. A simple ink drawing on the verso of an NGC entry ticket, it is the first appearance of the serigraph’s basic elements—namely, a female figure leaning over a bed (COL-833). Other drawings in the acquisition reveal that Colville continued to develop this concept in January 1974, when he determined the pose of the woman and began to situate the composition within one of his preferred geometric devices, a five-pointed star (COL-SKBK51.12). Colville returned to the project in August 1974, and continued to work on it intermittently until March 1975, when ink and watercolour drawings show added detail and the standing figure moved to the foot of the bed. By April 5, 1975, Colville had repositioned the woman in the foreground, where she leads the viewer into the intimate realm of the bedroom occupied by the titular figure of the work, the sleeping man. The remaining drawings for Sleeper demonstrate Colville’s renowned attention to detail, through in-depth studies of the feet of the man, the bed, and the curtains in the background—all while retaining the geometric framework he applied in 1974 (COL-841).

Alex Colville, Sleeper [Study 3], 11 April 1975, graphite, ink, and paint on wove paper. National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Gift of Alex Colville, May 2013 (COL-841)

The preparatory drawings in this donation to the Library and Archives at the National Gallery of Canada outline the process by which Alex Colville developed an idea into a painting or serigraph. He worked with exacting precision and attention to detail on each of his concepts—practices which have established him as one of Canada’s best-known and most iconic artists.

The project to catalogue the contents of the Alex Colville fonds has been generously supported by the Distinguished Patrons of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation.

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