ArtworksDavid MilneFirst Bare Ground (Weston, Ontario), 1930 (March)1882-1953Sold
Inscriptionssigned, ‘David B. Milne MARCH '30’ (upper right); inscribed on frame and circled, ‘21’(verso); inscribed by Framing Gallery on label, ‘Palgrave 1930’ (verso)
ProvenancePurchased from the artist by Maulsby Kimball, Buffalo, New York, 1931.
Morris Gallery, Toronto.
Unknown owner and/or The Framing Gallery, Toronto.
The Framing Gallery, Toronto.
The Collection of Mitzi and Mel Dobrin.
LiteratureMilne to James Clarke, Friday [c. 21 Feb 1930], NAC;
Milne A list 21, first draft as The First Bare Ground, Weston, and third and fourth drafts, First Bare Ground, MFP;
Milne A List 22, third draft (quoted in 208.1), MFP; Maulsby Kimball to Milne, 2 March 1931, MFP;
Maulsby Kimball to Vincent Massey, version of A list, 13 Nov 1934, UTA;
Milne, David Jr. and David Silcox, David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume 2: 1929 -1953 (TorontoL University of Toronto Press, 1998), no. 301.11, repr. p. 480.
This winter I have been awat Sundays occasionnally for a long walk through the farming country. Good for painting but not much in the way of even minimum excitement.
A week ago Sunday I went for a walk on the crust. Sunny, cold and clear, the best of the trips this winter. Then the thaw came. Last Sunday afternoon I went over part of the same way there was nothing left of the snow but patches on the north sides of shelters. The ice was out on the rivers and the roads were bare, in many places dry. We have had a little snow since but today the sun is smoking it off the roofs and I hear water running in the yard...I have painted very few small sketches, hardly at all outside this winter. I will try to work mote outside now though. - Milne to Clarke, Friday [ c. 21 February 1930]
2.1 First Bare Ground. Sky and land areas separated only by value, - the shapes are similar in sharp contrast with the blank sky ones. Not serenity but unity. - Milne A List, third draft
Another painting titled Bare Ground, Weston (12" x 16") in the first draft of the A list has not been identified, but it may be Lot 2, Concession 5, Weston, 301.15
"We can readily appreciate why Milne put this painting on what he called his ‘A list’ of works to show and sell."
-Mark A. Cheetham
The Milnes moved to Weston, Ontario (now part of greater Toronto) in the fall of 1929, just before the market crash. Milne hoped to establish himself in the Toronto art world, but this was a difficult time for them, as for so many others, trying to sell work during the Depression. They left friends and a familiar landscape behind in New York State. Milne soon preferred the landscape and lower rents of the nearby countryside; they moved to Palgrave, Ontario in 1930, in the Caledon Hills near Toronto. It was a peaceful place amidst his preferred agrarian landscapes that gave him easy access by train (for one dollar) to Toronto galleries and artists. Milne wrote in a letter from Palgrave that “the painter’s life is one continuous financial depression, and he gets used to it.” He always managed to paint and to experiment, while maintaining his recognizable style and priorities.
First Bare Ground shows the land as it emerges from winter in the Humber River area near which the Milnes lived. Still cold and somewhat uninviting in March (the month is noted beside the artist's signature at the top right), it was for Milne the confirmed walker also replete with vital activity, both on the ground and in the dramatic sky. In notes on the painting, Milne recorded what we observe here immediately. Characteristic of so much of his work, including Store Fronts, forms echo one another. In this case, it’s the long, low, delicately outlined stratocumulus clouds that mirror what must be – judging from the scale of the mature trees shown – extensive areas of black earth. Milne suggests that all that separates these forms is ‘value,’ that is, its registration of light and dark (white is the highest value, black the lowest). The affinity of sky and earth is an effect folded along the horizon line that divides the surface in approximately a one third / two thirds ratio, sky over land. Along this line we see diminutive houses, insignificant to Milne’s eye in even this near-urban locale, we could surmise. All the visual interest is in the purples, blues, browns, blacks and whites of the scene. We can readily appreciate why Milne put this painting on what he called his ‘A list’ of works to show and sell.
Another of Milne’s noteworthy traits as a painter is that he was simultaneously meticulously observant of his surroundings and highly portable. He found the world interesting everywhere. A few years after First Bare Ground, he wrote to Alice and Vincent Massey (among Canada’s leading art collectors at the time and crucial patrons of his work) explaining his method and aesthetic: “The painter gets an impression from some phase of nature. He doesn’t try to reproduce the thing before him: he simplifies and eliminates until he knows exactly what stirred him, sets this down in colour and line as simply, and so as powerfully as possible, and so translates his impression into an aesthetic emotion.” Here Milne aligns himself with the art theory of the British writer Clive Bell, who in Art (1914) explained the importance of his coinage ‘aesthetic emotion.’ “The recognition of a correspondence between the forms of a work of art and the familiar forms of life cannot possibly provoke aesthetic emotion,” Bell wrote. Only significant form can do that. Of course, realistic forms may be aesthetically significant, and out of them an artist may create a superb work of art, but it is with their aesthetic and not with their cognitive value that we shall then be concerned. We shall treat them as though they were not representative of anything.” While he had his preferred ‘painting places,’ as he called them, Milne could distill ‘significant form’ anywhere.
Mark A. Cheetham