Alex Colville

“I don’t intend to be menacing, but I do think of life as being essentially dangerous. We never know what’s going to happen from one day to the next.” —Alex Colville

Colville conjures an unsettling psychological space in many of his works. Viewer becomes voyeur as he builds intensity and complexity into an isolated moment. His scenes rest on the razor’s edge of tranquility and tension, quietly alluding to the ever-present potential for tragedy to unfold. This particular view of the world is not surprising, given Colville’s experiences of World War II. He described war as a “total collapse of any kind of control or order. Anything could happen. If you’ve seen this once, you know you may see it again.” His paintings repeatedly return to this understanding of the turmoil and violence that exist just below the surface of humanity.

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Alex Colville, Pacific 1967 Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard 53.3 × 53.5 cm Private collection, Canada © A.C. Fine Art Inc.

“I think if anything I am perhaps more inclined than most people are to be polite and considerate because I am aware that human relationships are innately fragile and kind of dangerous.”
—Alex Colville

In this rare instance you find Colville painting foreign waters: the Pacific Ocean. In 1967, Colville spent six months as a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The California sun cannot warm this chilling scene of a shirtless man looking out to sea, a Browning Hi Power single-action semi-automatic handgun resting on the table behind him. By including details such as the wristwatch and the ruled table, Colville highlights our impulse to create order in a world defined by chaos.This vivid image directly inspired scenes in American director Michael Mann’s crime thriller Heat (1995) and is also referenced in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999).

Horse and Train

Alex Colville, Horse and Train 1954 Glazed oil on hardboard 41.2 × 54.2 cm Art Gallery of Hamilton, gift of Dominion Foundries and Steel Limited (Dofasco), 1957 © A.C. Fine Art Inc.

“Against a regiment I oppose a brain, and a dark horse against an armoured train.”
—Roy Campbell, poet

This iconic painting of a black horse galloping toward an oncoming locomotive is one of Colville’s most riveting. The tension is palpable as you become a witness to an impending disaster. It’s no wonder director Stanley Kubrick chose to include it in an important early scene in his famous film The Shining (1980). The work appears just as the main characters, a young family, are about to make a choice that sets them on a path to tragedy. Horse and Train’s presence in the film underscores questions of good and evil, choice and fate. Both the film and the painting provoke the question: Is a tragic conclusion inevitable?


Alex Colville, January 1971 Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard 60.9 × 81.2 cm Collection of TD Bank Group © A.C. Fine Art Inc.

A man and woman may share the snowy space of this painting, but they exist in separate worlds. Here Colville presents us with a psychological study of the relationship between two people. The man, tightly hooded, his eyes obscured by sunglasses, looks forward grimly, emanating potential threat. The woman, wearing just a sweater, seems much more exposed as she turns to look behind her. The white expanse of a winter’s day is almost void-like.

Berlin Bus

Alex Colville, Berlin Bus 1978 Acrylic on hardboard 54.2 × 54.2 cm Private collection © A.C. Fine Art Inc.

Woman and Terrier

Alex Colville, Woman and Terrier 1963 Acrylic polymer emulsion on hardboard 60.9 x 60.9 cm Private Collection © A.C. Fine Art Inc

Colville thought his work had more in common with historical styles of art than the trends of his own time. “I live in the present world, [but] it just happens that the styles I use have more in common with art of the distant past than the art of the immediate past.” For this painting, Colville was inspired by Italian master artist Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair, painted in the early 1500s, and the round porthole paintings popular during the Renaissance.

Dog, Boy, and St. John River

Alex Colville, Dog, Boy, and St. John River 1958 Oil and synthetic resin on Masonite 61 × 82.6 cm Collection of Museum London, London, Ontario Art Fund, 1959 cat. No. 59.A79 © A.C. Fine Art Inc.

Alex Colville, Dog, Boy, and St. John River 1958 Oil and synthetic resin on Masonite 61 × 82.6 cm Collection of Museum London, London, Ontario Art Fund, 1959 cat. No. 59.A79 © A.C. Fine Art Inc.


Photo: Guido Mangold, Ottobrunn, Germany

Alex Colville in Hastings, Nova Scotia, 1970.


© Andreas Schultz, 2014.

Alex Colville at firing range in Nova Scotia, 2008.

Target Pistol and Man (1980) and No Country for Old Men (2007)

“Art is one of the principle means by which a person tries to compensate for the relentlessness of death.” —Alex Colville

Anton Chigurh, the villain of No Country for Old Men, and the subject of Colville’s Target Pistol and Man share a powerful stare. A potential for homicide, or suicide, fills each frame, as well as the possibility nothing will happen. As in life, these characters face complex negotiations between order and turmoil, free will and fate, life and death. No Country for Old Men is a contemporary Western thriller directed, written and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. Colville was a fan of the Coen Brothers’ films, and both filmmakers and artist produce undercurrents of fear, tension and the unknown, as they suggest the chance of everyday moments to tip towards calamity.

Target Pistol and Man

Alex Colville Target Pistol and Man, 1980 acrylic polymer emulsion 60.0 x 60.0 cm Private Collection © A.C.Fine Art Inc


Courtesy of Miramax

Jesse Wente, Director of Film Programmes, TIFF Bell Lightbox, investigates the connections between Alex Colville and the Coen brothers, discussing themes of tension and violence in their works.

Archival footage of Alex Colville from Studio: The Life and Times of Alex Colville, 2000, courtesy of 90th Parallel Productions Ltd., Toronto.

Jesse Wente on Colville and Kubrick