Artwork by David Brown Milne,  Billowing Trees (New York), circa 1910-11

David Milne
Billowing Trees (New York), circa 1910-11

oil on canvas
Milne catalogue raisonné no. 103.91
15 x 18.25 ins ( 38.1 x 46.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $150,000.00$100,000.00 - $150,000.00

Price Realized $120,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

Estate of the Artist
Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto
The Collection of Joe and Anita Robertson, Niagara-on-the-Lake
David P. Silcox, “Painting Place: The Life and Work of David Milne”, 1996, page 17
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 61, no.103.91
“Billowing Trees” makes it plain that Milne was truly immersed in the international and American avant–garde in New York, both through his formal art education and via osmosis in the metropolis. Straight from Bruce County in rural Ontario, he enrolled at the Arts Students’ League in New York City in 1903, leaving to try to establish himself as a commercial illustrator by 1905 or 1906. In the city he imbibed radical, modernist tendencies of both American and European Impressionism, Post– Impressionism, and Fauvism, movements that would guide his own unique painting style. While we know little of the specifics, he reported that at the League, “we saw everything, discussed everything, criticized everything.” Uniquely in the history of Canadian art, Milne exhibited five paintings in North America’s most significant and controversial early exhibition of the avant–garde, the Armory Show (1913). Seen in New York, Boston, and Chicago, in this legendary exhibit Milne showed alongside the contemporary international avant–garde whose paintings he had begun to see in New York Galleries, including Cézanne, Matisse, and Vuillard.

That the originally untitled painting later called ‘Billowing Trees’ is reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s paintings c. 1907 in its moody and expressive attachment to the landscape, or that it seems like a slightly tamed Fauvist landscape, does not suggest that Milne was literally following one of these styles, seen either in person or in a magazine or other reproduction. What the parallel does underline is that like these European artists, Milne was articulating a new response to painting and to landscape as a motif with the techniques and attitudes of Post–Impressionism and Fauvism, especially free paint handling and intense colour. He was included in the Armory Show in 1913 because he painted this way in 1910.

“Billowing Trees” is fluid and fluent; it was executed quickly, a technique promoted by Robert Henri and his circle of New York painters. The trees in this late–autumn scene do indeed seem to expand, dropping accents of colourful leaves into the snow in the foreground as a result. Playing out a seasonal symbiosis formally, Milne has white patches adorn their boughs just as the leaves decorate the snowy ground below. We know that in New York City, Milne began to understand and seek out urban scenes, inspired in part by the American Ashcan School (also called ‘The Eight’: Robert Henri, Maurice Prendergast, and William J. Glackens). Milne’s work was exhibited regularly by 1910 and reviewed approvingly in the New York press. Given his soon–to–be established reputation as a landscape painter in upper New York State and then on his return to Canada after World War I, it is salutary to recall that he also painted landscapes such as “Billowing Trees” at this early point in his long career.

Mark A. Cheetham is a freelance writer and curator and a professor of art history at the University of Toronto. He is author of books and essays on several Canadian artists, including Jack Chambers, Alex Colville, Robert Houle, and Camille Turner.

This artwork has been consigned from the Collection of Joe and Anita Robertson. The artwork from the collection (Lots 43-47 in this auction) is being offered in memory of Joe, Anita and Laura Robertson. Each work of art was carefully chosen by the Robertson family and hung in their welcoming home.

Joe and Anita Robertson were prominent Niagara Peninsula businesspeople, both born to large, closely knit families. They met as teenagers while working at a McDonald’s in Bells Corners, Nepean and married in 1986, raising three children, Taylor, Clark and Laura.

Joe and Anita were lifelong best friends and business partners. They excelled in their careers, purchasing a small dental supply company in St. Catharines, Ontario to grow it under the name of Arcona Health Incorporated. They would sell the company with Joe becoming the CEO and Chair of the Board of Directors of the parent company’s Canadian subsidiary, Henry Schein Arcona Inc.

Laura Robertson, the family’s youngest child, grew up in St. Catharines before moving to Vancouver to earn her Bachelor’s of Kinesiology from the University of British Columbia in 2017. Laura had begun working in Brock University’s Kinesiology Department as a Facilities Coordinator at the time of her passing. She was an active volunteer at Red Roof Retreat and was proud to serve Niagara-on-the-Lake as a volunteer firefighter. Laura had a lifelong passion for the arts and was a skilled illustrator and oil painter.

Joe and Anita Robertson were philanthropically active in their Niagara-on-the-Lake and St. Catharines communities, making major financial contributions to the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre to build a multipurpose theatre, the Niagara Health Foundation to support the construction of the hospital and the Niagara-on-the-Lake nursery, as well as many other causes.

Besides being active volunteers, they also individually played pivotal roles supporting the St. Catharines & District United Way, the Council of Chairs of Ontario Universities, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, Music Cares, Bravo Niagara and the Brock Performing Arts Centre. Joe also served on the board of Brock University for over a decade, and between 2012 and 2014 was Chair of their Board of Governors.

As such strong supporters and active participants of arts and culture, it is not surprising that the artwork they collected reflected their passion for art.

Cowley Abbott is proud to donate a portion of our commission from the sale of the family’s artwork to the United Way Niagara in memory of Joe, Anita and Laura Robertson and on behalf of their surviving children, Clark and Taylor.

Additional artwork from The Collection of Joe and Anita Robertson will be featured in a Cowley Abbott online auction, which will be open for bidding from November 28th to December 12th. We extend our thanks to Brett Sherlock Advisory for their active and important role in advising the Robertson family.

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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.