Alex Colville is one of Canada's most famous painters. Robert Fulford describes him as "a great national icon-maker," pointing out that one of his most famous images, Horse and Train reached so far into the Canadian psyche that Bruce Cockburn used it on a record jacket.
Born in Toronto in 1920, David Alexander Colville and his family moved to Nova Scotia nine years later. He studied Fine Art at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, graduating in 1942 when he married Rhoda Wright and enlisted in the army. In 1944 he went overseas as an Official War Artist to record his impressions of World War II. During his four-year deployment to the European Theatre, he was one of Canada's most prominent war artists, famously painting troops landing at JUNO Beach on D-Day as well as the traumatic entry of the allies into Bergen Belsen.
After the war, Colville returned to Mount Allison to teach painting and art history. It was during this period that he found his own style - a realism informed by both surrealism and symbolism. In 1963, he left Mount Allison to begin painting full-time. Later that year, Colville was awarded the Won Dunn International Award at the Beaverbrook Gallery.
While the National Gallery of Canada first began collecting Colville's work in the 1950s, it was not until exhibitions in Hanover, Germany and London, England in 1969 and 1970 that he began to experience commercial success. Since then, Colville's work has been exhibited around the world, and purchased by major galleries and private collectors. The most recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 2000 commemorated the artist's eightieth birthday.
Colville's complex interpretations of simple human situations grow out of an abundance of sketches and studies. He understands that his work is sometimes controversial, telling the CBC's Life and Times "what troubles people about my work, in which they find mystery and intrigue, may well be the idea that ordinary things are important."
In 1965, Colville was commissioned to design the coins commemorating Canada's centennial year. He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967, and made Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982. He has received numerous honorary degrees, and has served on many provincial and national boards including the Canada Council and the National Gallery of Canada. He was Chancellor of Nova Scotia's Acadia University from 1981 to 1991.