Little Figures
by David B. Milne
34.11-Milne_EasterSunday-Lapham
David B. Milne (Canadian-American, 1882–1953), Little Figures, 1912. Watercolor on illustration board, 22¼ × 17 in. (56.6 × 43.2 cm). Private Collection

David Milne (1882-1953)
Little Figures (now titled Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday), 1912
Watercolor on illustration board, 22 ¼ x 17 in. (56.6 x 43.2 cm)
Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Lapham III

Fifth Avenue
The view in Little Figures is of the crowded sidewalk in front of Thorley’s florist on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-Sixth Street in Manhattan. [1] Milne inscribed the front of the painting with the date April 7, 1912, which was Easter Sunday that year. This may account for the change in title—the work was exhibited as Little Figures at the Armory Show, then as Easter Sunday in a 1984 exhibition of Milne’s watercolors at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

At the Armory Show
Milne sent five works to the Armory Show, three watercolors and two oils, all from 1912. [2] Although he was not among the artists who were invited to participate in the exhibition, his works were accepted after he submitted them for examination by the Domestic Committee. He offered Little Figures for sale for $70, but it was not sold.

The response
Milne was mentioned specifically in the reviews, and in distinguished company. A critic for the New York Times saw him as a successor to contemporary French painters, noting his “instinctive refinement” of influences from France. [3] The writer also connected him with Americans John Marin, Robert Henri, Arthur B. Davies, and William Glackens as painters who captured the urban scene unsentimentally, but still “on its most agreeable side.” The critic for the Christian Science Monitor, on the other hand, grouped him with the “American ‘extremists’” William Zorach, Walter Pach, and Maurice Brazil Prendergast. [4]

[1] See cat. no. 104.10, Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday, in David Milne, Jr., and David P. Silcox, David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Vol. 1: 1882-1928 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 70.

[2] The other watercolors were The Garden (private collection) and Reclining Figure (unknown location). The oils were Distorted Tree (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and Columbus Circle (unknown location).

[3] “American Pictures at the International Exhibition Show Influence of Modern Foreign Schools,” New York Times, March 2, 1913, SM 15.

[4] “Art Productions of Many Sorts Shown in International Exhibition,” Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 1913, 15.

David Milne (1882-1953)

Born in the Canadian village of Burgoyne in southwestern Ontario, David Milne moved to New York City in 1903 and enrolled in the Art Students League. His most influential instructor there was the magazine illustrator and watercolor painter Henry Reuterdahl, who provided Milne with a model for his own career. [1] Milne’s reputation as a commercial illustrator never took off, despite his best efforts, and so in 1908-09 he turned his attention more seriously to watercolor. His subjects were primarily genteel views of New York’s upscale, fashionable neighborhoods, which he painted in an unconventional style characterized by patterning intensely colored, staccato strokes to create mosaics of color. Milne strove for a sense of immediacy and individual expression, and once wrote that watercolor “is so direct, so powerful, even brutal . . . it should be the painting medium because it is faster, and painting is the instantaneous art.” [2]

In choosing to paint traditional subjects in an untraditional way, Milne planted himself firmly in the center of artistic movements of his time. He aligned himself neither with the established artists such as William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam, who painted similar genteel views of New York in impressionistic styles, nor with the young radicals of his generation such as John Marin and Charles Demuth, who were using watercolors to create truly modernist images of the city’s changing landscape.

Though Milne exhibited frequently, including in the annual exhibitions of the American Water Color Society, the New York Water Color Club, and the Philadelphia Water Color Club, he never achieved significant commercial or critical success. Instead, he remained on the periphery of the New York artistic circles until he left the city to settle in the small upstate village of Boston Corners, New York, in 1916. There his works became increasingly experimental, featuring silhouetted graphic shapes and a dark palette of black, gray, and green.

[1] Carol Troyen, “‘A Welcome and Refreshing Note’: Milne and the New York Art Scene, 1903-1913,” in Katharine Lochnan, David Milne Watercolors: “Painting toward the Light” (Vancouver: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2005), 17.

[2] Quoted ibid., 24.

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