Artwork by David Brown Milne,  Fox Hill on a Rainy Day (Boston Corners)

David Milne
Fox Hill on a Rainy Day (Boston Corners)

signed and dated “March 13 1920” lower right; catalogue raisonne no. 201.72
15.25 x 22.25 ins ( 38.7 x 56.5 cms ) ( sheet )

Auction Estimate: $80,000.00$60,000.00 - $80,000.00

Price Realized $84,000.00
Sale date: September 24th 2020

Acquired directly from the artist by Duncan Campbell-Scott, Ottawa (circa 1924)
Mrs. Grant Dexter, Ottawa (noted untraced since 1972 in cat raisonne)
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 274 (No. 201.72)
Sarah Milroy and Ian A.C. Desjardin (eds.), “David Milne: Modern Painting”, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 2018, 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
One of Canada’s pioneers of modern art, David Milne moved from Burgoyne, Ontario to work and study in New York City in 1903. He enrolled at the Arts Students League, where he was exposed to the avant-garde paintings of the Post-Impressionists, Fauves, Nabis and early Cubists. The landmark Armory Show of 1913 marked the official arrival of modernism in North America; five of Milne’s works were included in the exhibition alongside Europe’s popular artists. The painter also acknowledged that he was particularly taken by Claude Monet’s Haystack series, which he had seen at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291. 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.

An inspired and passionate young artist in New York, Milne warned his fiancée Patsy Hegarty, that “he would rather be dead than not paint” and “I paint all the time, or not at all.” Subsequently, in 1916 the couple left the city to embrace a more rural life where Milne could afford to paint full-time with few responsibilities or distractions. They first settled in Boston Corners, a village of ninety-six inhabitants at the edge of the Taconic Range, where New York meets Massachusetts and Connecticut. He had been searching for a 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.” 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.”

“Fox Hill on a Rainy Day (Boston Corners)” presents a distinct foreground, middle ground and background, as described by Desjardin. A ‘string of trees’ separates the foreground from a small village on the plains, leading to rolling hills in the distance. Milne employs a limited colour palette, consisting of brown, black and blue, as well as the negative space of the paper scattering the composition to evoke patches of melting snow. In his notes on the painting, Milne writes that he was “again interested in the contrast in shape and texture between the streaked trees and the full heavy patches of the contour spots and buildings.” The intersecting patches of brown conjure feelings of dampness and thawing soil during the early glimpses of spring in the northeast coast. In his notes Milne describes the environment depicted in the work: “Forenoon, March 13th. Raining, fog covering top of Fox Hill.”

Milne enjoyed the peace and solitude of a rural life in Boston Corners. His new lifestyle would soon be interrupted, however, when he joined the Canadian Army in late 1917. He trained in Toronto, spent several months in Quebec, and arrived in Europe just before World War I ended. In 1919, he worked as a war artist painting camp and training facilities in England, as well as in the deserted battlefields in France and Belgium. Milne returned to New York State later that year and resumed painting full time, creating works such as “Fox Hill on a Rainy Day (Boston Corners)” the following spring.

His painting shifted from the often vertical format of New York to the horizontal repose of landscape. 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; 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.”

This delicate watercolour illustrates the influence of the avant-garde European art movements on Milne, and how the Canadian artist incorporated them into his landscapes of Boston Corners. The composition showcases the flat, patternistic quality that Milne admired in Monet’s paintings. The flattened perspective and decorative paint application on bare paper recall the fragmented landscapes of Cézanne, whose work he also admired while in New York City. “Fox Hill on a Rainy Day (Boston Corners)” exemplifies Milne’s strong predilection for line, which was given increased prominence during his years in Boston Corners. Milne became known for his precision in technique and composition, choosing carefully planned landscapes to ensure a pure aestheticism and distinct body of work.

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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.