Artwork by David Brown Milne,  The Black Couch, 1914

David Milne
The Black Couch, 1914

oil on canvas
inscribed “David Milne: The Black Couch (1914)” on the stretcher; Milne catalogue raisonné no.105.101
20 x 22 ins ( 50.8 x 55.9 cms )

Auction Estimate: $400,000.00$300,000.00 - $400,000.00

Price Realized $480,000.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

The Artist
By descent to Mrs. Kathleen Milne, Bancroft, Ontario
Picture Loan Society, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, circa 1967
“Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988‒7 May 1989, no. 89
David Milne, “Modern Painting”, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; travelling to Vancouver Art Gallery, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, 14 February 2018-13 January 2019
“Collectors’ Treasures/Trésors des collectioneurs”, Annual Loan Exhibition, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff Inc., 19 October-2 November 2019, no. 35
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 89, reproduced page 80
David P. Silcox, “Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne”, Toronto, 1996, page 56, reproduced page 58
David Milne Jr. and David P. Silcox, “David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume 1: 1882‒1928”, Toronto, 1998, listed and reproduced page 126, no.105.101
Sarah Milroy and Ian A.C. Dejardin, “David Milne, Modern Painting”, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 2018, reproduced page 56
David Milne’s profound differences from most of his Canadian contemporaries‒especially Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven‒ announce themselves powerfully in the early though supremely confident painting “The Black Couch”. Though he would later be known and admired as a landscape painter in both the USA and Canada, he did not begin in that mode. Born in Bruce County in rural southwestern Ontario, at age 21, the ever-courageous Milne enrolled at the progressive Arts Students’ League in New York City (1903-05) and stayed in the metropolis until 1916, when he moved to Boston Corners in New York State. Milne joined the Canadian Army in 1917 and returned to the USA afterwards. David and Patsy Milne moved back to Canada permanently in 1929.

In “The Black Couch”, we see some of what Milne learned about the then‒ radical, modernist tendencies of the American Ashcan School‒also called ‘The Eight’‒European Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Fauvism, movements that would underpin his own unique painting style. The figure here is his wife Patsy, shown in the small front room of a store near the cottage they had rented up the Hudson River from New York in the summer of 1914. The multi‒colored treatment of her face suggests the impact of Matisse and other Fauve painters on Milne’s sensibility. Milne had shared the limelight with Matisse in the famous Armory Exhibition of 1913. The only Canadian in this now famous exhibition of the avant-garde in the USA, Milne contributed five paintings.

Generically, the portrait is intimate; it also resonates with the early 20th-century European art movement of Intimism, championed especially by Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. The visual vibrancy of the closely integrated surface is achieved by vibrant accents in red, orange, and blue leaping out from the darker hues, all animated by significant areas of off-white, unpainted canvas. Always one to set himself an aesthetic challenge, Milne delineates Patsy’s form even though she sits on a black sofa in a black dress. She both appears and disappears.

“The Black Couch” is a painting about painting, a work by a bold artist. Milne had every reason to be confident at this time. By circa 1910, his work was exhibited regularly and reviewed approvingly in the New York press. Thinking about the legacy of Milne’s work as early as 1912, a reviewer in the New York Times wrote, “We fancy that the truth lovers and truth haters of tomorrow will alike see in such pictures as these brisk little paintings by Mr. Milne a genuine effort toward individual research in the wide field of art, an effort toward cutting loose from formulas that have served for twenty or more years...”. Again, like Matisse, with “The Black Couch” Milne provides us with the visual means not only to take pleasure in what we see but also to ponder what representation is. On the left and right of this picture we glimpse two other framed paintings. Between them are what look like decorated plates, flowers, and possibly a mirror. All forms are embedded in a democratizing mesh of marks and colours. Significantly, the sitter is not named here. Instead, she is part of a shifting web of colour and form, part of an animate still life more than a traditional portrait.

We thank Dr. Mark A. Cheetham, professor of art history at the University of Toronto and author of “Abstract Art Against Autonomy: Infection, Resistance, and Cure since the '60s” (Cambridge University Press), for contributing the preceding essay.

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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.