LOT 122

1882 - 1953

Window at Night
oil on canvas
signed and dated 1934 and on verso titled and inscribed "32B" / "32" / "128"
16 1/8 x 20 1/8 in, 41 x 51.1 cm

Estimate: $30,000 - $50,000 CAD

Sold for: $31,250

Preview at:

Sale of the Artist to Vincent Massey, Toronto, 1935
Laing Galleries, Toronto
Acquired from the above by a Private Collection, Toronto, April 9, 1958
By descent to the present Private Collection, Toronto

David Milne Jr. and David P. Silcox, David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume 2: 1929 - 1953, 1998, reproduced page 589, catalogue #303.49

David Milne responded passionately to the place in which he was painting, particularly to what motifs it offered, and often registered his aesthetic satisfaction (or otherwise) with a specific locale. Born in Bruce County, Ontario, he enrolled at the Art Students League of New York (1903 - 1905) and stayed in New York 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. Though he established a strong early reputation in the USA, he and his wife Patsy returned to Canada in 1929 and settled in the town of Palgrave, in southern Ontario. Milne loved the quiet, domestic, agrarian landscapes of the area and the quaintness of the town. However, his relationship with Patsy ended while they were living in Palgrave.

Characteristic of his peripatetic life, by 1933 Milne was again reluctantly uprooted. He searched for another sympathetic locale where he could afford to live and settled on Six Mile Lake, near Georgian Bay in the Muskoka area of Ontario. He then built a cabin and started painting. Milne lived at Six Mile Lake from 1933 to 1937, longer than anywhere else in his career.

Window at Night is a distinctive work by Milne, and fascinating in its own right. With Hepaticas in a Cup and Pool in Snow (lots 121 and 123, respectively), it is also notable as one of approximately 300 works that Milne sold to Vincent and Alice Massey in one of the oddest and most memorable episodes of patronage in the history of art in Canada.[1] Always skirting poverty and yet dedicated to making art, Milne conceived a plan in about 1933 to sell large numbers of his works in one lot. In the Depression, his motive was in part financial, but equally to keep his work together in one accessible collection. Writing to Alice and Vincent Massey—the eventual purchasers—he reasoned that the total price he had set for this collection of recent work (about $5 per painting) was not “large enough to have made their painting a profitable, or even possible, enterprise; yet it is enough to ensure years of undisturbed painting for the artist with simple tastes.” The aim, he continued, was “to trade twenty-five years of painting that is past for five or ten years in the future.”[2] Selling these and other works to the Masseys, who were among Canada’s leading collectors at the time, was prestigious for Milne and financially essential, even though the subsequent exhibition and sale of some of this work was not what he had envisioned, and was the cause of regret for Milne.

At first, it is difficult to make sense of Window at Night. Guided by the title, we can imagine that we are seeing reflections in the windows of Milne’s small cabin in artificial light. The space is tight. Colour is dramatic but restricted, and the aggressive orange and black forms that extrude from the centre of the image are not descriptive, but instead suggest the experimentalism of this work and much of Milne’s painting at Six Mile Lake. He often painted over or partially erased his own efforts, which could be one way to interpret these forms, and he tried out textures that could become new background configurations.

The result is a compellingly unfamiliar painting. Milne embraced the isolation he found in this new spot, perhaps in part because it forced him to find new subjects close to hand. “So far as I know I am the only permanent resident,” he wrote. “From here you can hear the train whistles at Bala and the steamboat whistles on Georgian Bay. No railways touch Six Mile and no highways. There is one rough wagon road from Honey Harbour and Port Severn, branching off to touch Six Mile at White’s. You can’t get to it by canoe without a portage. Barring that it is accessible.”[3]

We thank Mark A. Cheetham, Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto, for contributing the above essay. Cheetham has written extensively on Canadian art and artists—including Jack Chambers, Alex Colville, Robert Houle and Camille Turner—and was most recently a contributor to the 2022 book Unsettling Canadian Art History.

Hepaticas in a Cup has been in the same family since it was acquired from Laing Galleries in 1958. Window at Night has been in the same family since it was acquired from Laing Galleries in 1958. The coat pictured in this painting belonged to David Milne, as confirmed by David Milne Jnr. Milne Jnr. recalls that his father used the coat a number of times in Six Mile Lake interiors, sometimes against shelves. In this painting, it is equally effective against the cabin window at night.

1. Described in detail in David P. Silcox, Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), chap. 12.

2. Ibid., 250.

3. Ibid., 246.

Estimate: $30,000 - $50,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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