LOT 008

1920 - 2013

Swimmer and Sun
acrylic polymer emulsion on board
on verso signed, titled, dated December 1993 and inscribed variously
8 1/4 x 23 5/8 in, 20.8 x 60 cm

Estimate: $450,000 - $650,000 CAD

Sold for: $541,250

Preview at:

Shearman & Sterling, Toronto
Private Collection, United Kingdom

Philip Fry, editor, Alex Colville: Paintings, Prints, and Processes, 1983 – 1994, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1994, discussed pages 97 and 98, reproduced page 99 and listed page 174

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Alex Colville: Paintings, Prints, and Processes, 1983 – 1994, September 1994 – January 1995, catalogue #22

Alex Colville was an artist in his mature prime when he painted Swimmer and Sun. Always inquisitive and productive, in the 1990s, he capitalized on his many art world accomplishments, which included the design of the much-admired centennial coins in 1967, the Order of Canada (1967, 1982), and numerous honorary degrees. His work was widely appreciated in Canada and increasingly known abroad through exhibitions in Germany, London, China and Japan. Confidence, consistency, compassion: these qualities equally describe Colville the man and his art over his long career.

Thematically, Swimmer and Sun invites comparison with some of Colville’s best-known and most arresting works. Three Girls on a Wharf (1953, collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia) has him show female nudity in a manner informed by the European art history that Colville aspired to be in conversation with. June Noon of 1963 (sold by Heffel in May 2023) places Rhoda Colville nude in a tent but at the beach, before or after swimming. The Swimming Race (1958, collection of the National Gallery of Canada) presents his interest in athleticism. The intimacy of couples is a crucial theme for Colville and often explored via swimming. Looking out to the ocean, a man and a woman relax before or after a swim in Verandah (1983, private collection). After Swimming (1955, collection of the Dalhousie Art Gallery) was his first published serigraph, while Couple on Beach (1957, National Gallery of Canada) is one of his best-known paintings.

The swimming motif is thus one of Colville’s most common and effective. As we see in many of the examples above, he often chose his wife Rhoda as his model and muse. But Swimmer and Sun is not a portrait. Colville typically repressed or deflected identifying details as a way to have his audience think more broadly, more metaphysically. In a tribute to the Canadian philosopher George Grant (1918 – 1988), he wrote, “I have been for many years, many decades interested in the concept of creatures who, while living, are thinking about life.”[1]

For Colville, the representation of swimming is a way to plumb the depths of everyday life, to ask how much we know of one another and ourselves and how we navigate our place in nature.

Swimmer and Sun thus embodies Colville’s characteristic and potent double emphasis on the everyday and the profound, in this case, even the uncanniness of a special situation. The strikingly dominant black frame presents us with a noteworthy moment that we can imagine Colville himself experienced or witnessed. Is the sun rising or setting? Is the swimmer just breaking the smooth surface of the water or re-submerging? Either way, we witness the mystery of the liminal state, both in the painting’s moody atmosphere and in the consciousness of both the swimmer and ourselves.

Colville presents the profound distinctiveness of this fleeting event without any vagueness. In fact, the large frame—made to exacting standards by the artist, as was his habit—holds the transitoriness of the scene firmly. Its horizontal rectilinearity is balanced and softened on the painting surface by the circles: the sun, the widening ripples on the water, and the head itself, which is simplified by the swimmer’s white bathing cap. The vibrant blues of the water and the prominent eyes collaborate to make this an unworldly, preternatural scene. No markers distract from the infinite expanse of what we see and are invited to contemplate in this seascape. There is no seabird winging past, no spit of land, no sailboat. The swimmer suggests that we are alone in nature and share a responsibility to think about this relationship.

We thank Mark A. Cheetham, author of Alex Colville: The Observer Observed, for contributing the above essay. He is a professor of art history at the University of Toronto and a freelance curator and artwriter.

This work is in the original frame made by Colville.

1. Colville, “A Tribute to Professor George P. Grant,” Bell Lecture Series, Carleton University, Ottawa, September 1989. Cited in Mark Cheetham, Alex Colville: The Observer Observed (Toronto: ECW Press, 1994), 119.

Estimate: $450,000 - $650,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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