Artwork by David Brown Milne,  Soft Hills (Misty Hill) (Boston Corners, N.Y.)

David Milne
Soft Hills (Misty Hill) (Boston Corners, N.Y.)

Catalogue Raisonne Number 107.89 (circa June, 1917); titled “Soft Hills” (crossed out) by Patsy Milne and dated 1917 on the reverse
15 x 22.5 ins ( 38.1 x 57.2 cms ) ( sheet )

Auction Estimate: $60,000.00$40,000.00 - $60,000.00

Price Realized $112,100.00
Sale date: May 28th 2019

Duncan/Picture Loan Society
Robertson Gallery, Ottawa
A.R. Perry, New Zealand (1959)
David P. Silcox, Toronto (1978)
Dr. R.G.N. Laidlaw (1983)
By descent to the present Private Collection, Ontario
David Milne Jr. And David P. Silcox, David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume 1: 1929-1953, Toronto, 1998, listed and reproduced page 183
Sarah Milroy and Ian A.C. Desjardin (eds.), David Milne: Modern Painting, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, pages 17-22
Katharine Lochnan (ed.), David Milne Watercolours: Painting toward the Light, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2005, pages 44 and 53
David P. Silcox, Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne, Toronto, 1996, pages 75 and 84
Born and raised in the small southwestern Ontario village of Burgoyne, David Milne first studied art through correspondence in 1902 and 1903, before moving to New York City in 1903 at the age of 21. He enrolled in classes at the Art Students League for the next two years, where he was among the first generation of North American artists to encounter and engage with the avant-garde European art of the Impressionists, the Fauves, the Nabis and early Cubists. Milne acknowledged that he was particularly taken by Claude Monet’s Haystack series, which he had seen at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery 291.

The landmark Armory Show of 1913 marked the official arrival of modernism in North America; five of Milne’s works (three watercolours and two oils) were included in the exhibition alongside Europe’s latest and best artists. The period following the Armory Show was a productive time for Milne; by 1914 he had produced nearly one hundred paintings, most of them watercolours. He painted interior scenes, street scenes and broader landscape views, and alternated between opaque paint application and loose washes with areas of exposed paper. During these years Milne developed an original and distinctive watercolour style that he would carry with him throughout his prolific career.

“Soft Hill (Misty Hills) (Boston Corners, N.Y.)” was painted in 1917, shortly after Milne and his wife Patsy moved to the small village of Boston Corners, New York. The artist grew tired of New York City, and sought a new location that was a reasonable distance from the city, suitable for painting, and, as Milne remarked, “preferably with hills to sit on while painting other hills.” The plan was to paint full time, while doing freelance commercial work, however Milne ended up finding it very difficult to find clients in a town with a population of 96, and dedicated most of his time to painting. Author Ian A.C. Desjardin writes that “Boston Corners was to inspire some of his most distinctive works, particularly the view over the valley to the hills beyond, the foreground and middle ground marked by strings of trees and buildings. For Canadians, these are among his most iconic paintings.”

For the eighteen months following their move, Milne found all his watercolour subjects within a few miles of his house. They were painted en plein air, often with a graphite stencil beneath the pigment, and Milne claimed not to alter them once they were done. He painted many pictures of the same subjects; they are both variations on a theme and an obsessive search for what he considered perfection. Milne wrote of the Boston Corners years: “Painting subjects were scattered all over the place but rarely were more than two miles away. All were painted on the spot, and then, good or bad, left alone; no attempt was made to develop or change or repaint after the original painting was done. [...] The radius of my painting was determined by time, load and frame of mind. If my attention hadn’t escaped from the round of day by day events and become fixed on painting subjects and painting methods within the leisurely two-mile walk, it wasn’t apt to that day.”

“Soft Hill (Misty Hills) (Boston Corners, N.Y.)” illustrates the flat, patternistic quality that Milne admired in Monet and incorporated into his rural American scenes. The flattened perspective and decorative paint application on bare paper recall the fragmented landscapes of Cézanne, whose work he also admired in New York City. The watercolour is intricately and deliberately composed, while simultaneously loose and spontaneous in its line and contours. Milne’s watercolour method consisted of painting the black outlines of each form, filling some in with colour applied directly to the paper, and then adding water to certain areas to create a soft, blended appearance. This wash effect is present in the densely wooded areas on either side of the body of water, creating a pleasing contrast with the more defined buildings and trees of the foreground. “Soft Hill (Misty Hills) (Boston Corners, N.Y.)” exemplifies Milne’s strong predilection for line that was given increased prominence during his early years in Boston Corners. David P. Silcox remarks on the paintings of this period: “The linear and abstract qualities of 1917 Boston Corners works were uppermost in his mind. He was interested in the primacy of line or contour over colour or mass, a preoccupation that would recur often.”

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David Brown Milne
(1881 - 1953) Canadian Group of Painters

Milne was born near Paisley, Ontario. A childhood interest in art, which revived while he was teaching, led him to take a correspondence course and eventually he travelled to New York City to continue his studies. This was somewhat of an exception in the early twentieth-century Canadian art scene as the majority of artists went to Europe to study. While in New York City, Milne worked as a commercial illustrator for several years before deciding to give up this work and devote his time to painting. Shortly after making this decision he moved to Boston Corners in New York.

Throughout his life Milne sought the peace and solitude of a rural life. In his paintings, Milne explored different viewpoints. He greatly admired the work of Tom Thomson but had little interest in the nationalistic approach of the Group of Seven. His themes range from landscapes to views of towns and cities, still lifes and imaginary subjects. His experiments with different media and changing viewpoints show his interest in the process of painting itself. In 1929, Milne returned to settle permanently in Canada, stopping for brief periods in Temagami, Weston, and Palgrave. He built a secluded cabin at Six Mile Lake, north of Orillia, and spent the next six years painting, for the most part, alone. Milne was interested in 'pure' painting, in "adventures in shape, colour, texture and space" as he called his watercolours of the 1930s and 1940s. The change from the less vibrant drybrush "adventures" to the fantasy watercolours is often attributed to the birth of his only child, David Jr., born to Milne's second wife when Milne was sixty. His young son encouraged him to adopt a new, vibrant and often whimsical approach to his art. Milne spent the rest of his life in Uxbridge, north of Toronto, exploring the Haliburton and Bancroft areas as well as the city of Toronto.