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Black and White Trees and Building

David B. Milne
White and Black Trees and Buildings, 1915-16
oil on canvas
51.5 x 61.5 cm
Gift of M.F. Feheley, Toronto, 1998
© The David Milne Estate, 1999

Born near Burgoyne, Ontario, David Milne arrived in New York in 1903, where he studied and worked as a commercial artist for a number of years. Around 1912 he began to achieve recognition as a painter for his New York street scenes. He exhibited five paintings in the famous 1913 Armory Show and in 1916 moved upstate to Boston Corners.

In his early New York paintings and watercolours such as Billboards (NGC), Milne constructed his composition in horizontal bands, restricted spatial recession, and used trees to define the principal verticals. The bright whites, reds, yellows, and blues of these works contrast with the more restrained palette of his 1915 paintings of the Bronx, New York, such as Grey, Brown and Black (NGC), in which houses are piled up in a frontal, vertical arrangement, the vertical lines juxtaposed with the curving foliage of the trees painted in solid darks with a somewhat lighter crest. He would pursue this latter convention in his sparse 1915 drawings of trees, their black cores and green crests sensitively arranged on the white blank paper.

In Black and White Trees and Buildings Milne has depicted two houses and a garage at the foot of a hill with three trees in the open foreground. As in the 1915 drawings he has restricted his palette to white and an almost black green with touches of brown and a somewhat lighter green in the buildings. The image is composed of contrasts between the white lower and black green upper sections and between the white and black green of the foreground trees. The left tree is outlined in black green and filled with white leaving the ground visible at the edges of the colour breaks. The right tree is painted in black green with white loosely defining the branches. Above is a smaller bisected tree, whose lower half is white outlined in black green and upper half black green outlined in white. White lines accent the curving branches of the large pines and hills above, only summarily defining the somewhat ambiguous forms. While the white in the foreground and on the curves of the branches suggests snow and thus an early 1916 date, Milne’s use of colour was not mimetic but abstract, as evidenced in some of the titles he used during that period: Bronze and Black, Blue-Green, Black-Green. Black and White Trees and Buildings is not the artist’s title, however, but one assigned to the painting in the recent catalogue raisonné prepared by David Milne Jr. and David Silcox and published by the University of Toronto Press.

The years 1915 and 1916 mark a transition in Milne’s career. Certain earlier ideas are pushed further and new directions initiated. In his oils of 1916, painted in Boston Corners, he again set trees against a rising hill and further explored the bisected image by using horizontal and vertical lines. The artist was later quite diffident about the works from this period, calling them “mannered, heavy, spotty and lacking any sensitiveness or subtlety.” He blamed their deficiencies on a confusion between his commercial graphic work and painting. It is difficult to understand how these comments might apply to this wonderfully restrained yet subtly painted canvas by one of Canada’s most important artists of the first half of the 20th century.