David Milne

I'm very excited about this essay about David Milne (1882-1953). I discovered Milne quite a few years ago when I discovered the town of Paisley, a dinkytown in sleepy part of Ontario. How could Paisley, population ???, have ever given birth to this amazing Canadian artist: David Milne.

Let’s Consider David Milne, Canadian Artist (1882-1953) #4 [Nov 16, 2019]

“The five senses are the ministers of the Soul”—Leonardo da Vinci

Examining the creations of any artist can help us know that person better. It also helps us understand the value of viewing, living with, the work of most artists. Here, let’s consider the creations and the life activities of another “lesser known” Canadian artist: David Milne (1882-1953).

What’s it like to be labeled a “lesser known” artist? Just what do these words mean? Another point to consider is what it means to be a “Canadian” artist. According to the very Canadian author, Robertson Davies, “…we become wholly Canadian---hard-headed, no nonsense North Americans” when we live out our lives here in Canada.


David Milne is the subject in this essay just as Homer Watson was visited previously. These two artists have similar roots--they both began life in tiny Canadian places with extremely limited access to fine arts. Watson came from Doon, Ontario, a village of 200 people. Milne was born in Burgoyne, Ontario (near Paisley, Ontario) in 1882. The population of that village in 1882 is unknown since it was not included in past StatCan census counts. Mighty small, yes? He was the last of 10 children born to Scottish immigrant parents. His early education was in Paisley, followed by high school in Walkerton; he performed well in school and soon after graduation began teaching in a country school near Paisley.


During 1902 and 1903 he studied art through correspondence. He eventually decided to move to New York City in 1903 at the age of 21 to continue his art studies and to further his career. In 1913 he was introduced to the art world through the NYC Armory Exhibition of art. This afforded Milne his first major exposure. But even then, he chose to live a desperately quiet life in upstate New York as if he still lived in rural Ontario. There he created thousands of watercolor and oil paintings reflecting his changing taste in the message he wished to share through painting.

Milne was always in a trench some place and he was overlooked by art critics during his time on earth. “Oils that he couldn’t unload at twenty dollars in the Twenties are [now] worth up to $5,000; small watercolors may fetch $200 or more—and only two or three hundred pictures of any description are left in his estate from the thousands he painted.” (Maclean’s) Milne himself remains a relative “least known” and “most enigmatic figure in the history of Canadian art.” (Maclean’s) His art was known to a select few, including Vincent Massey, a Governor General of Canada. Today water colorists acknowledge him as their master, and every major Canadian gallery has representative work. [Maclean’s magazine, June 17, 1961, “Genius in Hiding,” Barbara Moon.]

Artist A. Y. Jackson considered David Milne a genius, a most eccentric genius. Milne painted in poverty and obscurity, but the few knowledgeable people who stumbled upon his work during his lifetime spotted its quality at once. Yet he remained relativity unknown during his lifetime. Upon his death in 1953 in Bancroft, Ontario, his solitary life ended but his art gradually surfaced over the years and finally took its place among truly masterful Canadian art.

In what ways did David Milne become a success as an artist? He slavishly devoted his life to using his mind to create—everything else was just background for him Maybe a person viewing his paintings will react less to what is found there and more to just how he used his creative thinking. Isn’t this what engages the viewer? Milne constantly interacts with his demons and angels in his paintings. Look again at his art to see this.

Further reading: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1961/6/17/genius-in-hiding-david-milne

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