Summers To and Fro: Alex Colville’s Iconic Travellers

Alex Colville, To Prince Edward Island, 1965. Acrylic emulsion on masonite, 61.9 x 92.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © NGC Photo: NGC

Summer fades to its end, its warm embrace faltering. Autumn creeps in like an unwanted reality, changing everything, laying waste for winter. We pack up to leave our summer places, where we have been to feel the sun on our skin, the grass between our toes, the water as we splash in the river, the lake, the ocean. We look back and see the place that is all that summer can be, and we store it away for another year.

This sense of summer glows brightly in To Prince Edward Island, the 1965 painting by Alex Colville in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. At the time Colville, his wife Rhoda and four young children lived in Sackville, New Brunswick, where he had recently retired from teaching at Mount Allison University to focus on his own art full time.

The ship in the painting is the M.V. Abegweit, the most storied of the ferries that ran between Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, and Borden, Prince Edward Island, prior to the opening of the Confederation Bridge in 1997. The painting is an expanse of blue skies and calm waters, framing – with in-your-face directness – a woman whose own face is partially hidden by the binoculars through which she is looking. Few paintings look back at you so intensely, and you can see in that gaze the sweet anticipation of travelling to a summer place. Although we know from the titular “To” that the Colvilles were travelling to PEI, at this time of year you can as readily imagine the melancholy fondness as your own summer place, and summer itself, retreat once again into the distance.

Alex Colville, Living Room, 1999–2000. Acrylic on masonite, 41.8 x 58.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © A.C. Fine Art. Photo: NGC

By early 1997, when Colville sat for an interview at the home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, To Prince Edward Island was iconic, and Colville had achieved an international reputation. Their house had been Rhoda’s childhood home and, like the artist, it was old but upright, aged but solid, its lines still straight. Colville sat in a wing-back chair in a room softly illuminated by the retreating light of a spring afternoon, beneath a poster of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. He talked about returning to the “Abby” [M.V. Abegweit] to measure its rails, benches, lifeboats and other numbers he needed for his exacting compositions.

The woman in To Prince Edward Island is Rhoda, his frequent model (they would be married for 70 years), and he’s the man partially visible behind her. He recalled that he once overheard a man who looked at the painting and became agitated, because the woman was blocking the man from view in the painting, which the man considered to be disrespectful. Colville, bemused, said the thought had never occurred to him when he created the painting. The positioning seems the embodiment of what he described to curator Patrick Laurette in 1980 as the contrast between the “searching vision of the female” and the “stupid and passive” approach of the male gaze. “The woman sees, I suppose,” he said, “and the man does not.”

Alex Colville, Woman, Man and Boat, 1952. Glazed tempera on masonite, 32.3 x 51.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © A.C. Fine Art. Photo: NGC

The angry man missed an elemental truth of many of Colville’s paintings, including To Prince Edward Island. These works are about the essential space between bodies in thrall to one another, like heavenly bodies that are harmoniously spun by each other’s gravity. This essential “between space” is seen again and again in Colville’s work. Examples include the paintings Woman, Man and Boat and Living Room – completed, respectively, 13 years before To Prince Edward Island and 35 years after – which show the man and woman (Rhoda and Alex redux) distanced slightly, always slightly apart, yet inseparable. They are independent and yet they are one. 

There are places that we feel as part of us, locations that map the very terrain of our memories. Maybe it is the place where we spent time as kids, or maybe it’s the place we always dreamed of lolling away hot summer days. The journey to the place builds to the euphoric feeling of rounding the final bend, cresting the last hill, or catching your first glimpse of it from the top deck of a ferry boat. The feeling is so strong that even when the journey reverses and it’s time to leave, your summer place is still part of you, helping to warm your heart through the days to come.

 

For information on works by Alex Colville at the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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