Horse and Train by Alex Colville


Alex Colville is a Canadian painter from the province of New Brunswick. Colville was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1920 and moved to Amherst, Nova Scotia with his family in1929, where he grew up. As a child Colville would reconstruct his father’s blueprints and transform them into three dimensional pictures. As a child Colville used to construct model planes and trains. Colville grew up around horses because his father and grandfather owned them. Horse and Train would be personal to him because of his past experience with horses and technology. In 1938, Colville began attending Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick and received his bachelor for fine arts in 1942. Colville was involved in the Second World War; he became a war artist in the Canadian military.

Colville first sketched Horse and Train on a sheet of paper, on March 16, 1954. The original title of the painting was “A Dark Horse against an Armoured Train.” The setting of the picture Horse and Train is located at Aulac just outside of Sackville (in the province of New Brunswick), where the elevated tracks crosses the Tantramar Marshes.

The Horse and Train was inspired by the poem, “Dedication to Mary Campbell,” published in 1949 by South African writer Roy Campbell. The poem includes the lines: “Against a regiment I oppose a brain, and a dark horse against an armoured train.”

According to Tom Smart's autobiography of Colville, Colville turned to existentialism in his art work after World War II. Existentialism tends to focus on the question of human existence. It is up to humans to create personal responsibility for themselves outside of any branded belief system. Existentialist seem to embrace existence and seek to find and create meaning in life. For Colville, existentialism provided a way for him to understand the Second World War and investigate his experiences. Colville reflects his experiences of the Second World War into his paintings of the 1950s by trying to present to the viewer a feeling of sadness. During the 1950s, Colville’s art work was a search for self discovery. Colville’s artistic process became a visual analogue of a quest for finding himself.


The painting was finished in 1954 and the Art Gallery of Hamilton obtained the piece in 1957. Colville’s paintings are currently exhibited across the globe; from North America, Europe and to the Far East and have been shown in museum, businesses and private collections. Horse and Train has been praised by critics and they declare Colville’s works to be both mysterious and realistic. Horse and Train is mysterious because horses usually are not placed in the situation of being on the train tracks and realistic because the train, tracks, and horse all exists in reality.

Art h
istorians seem to focus on Colville’s military art career, as having some influence in paintings. After enlisting in the army, Colville served from 1944 to 1946 as a war artist. During World War II, Colville was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after the liberation, where he produced paintings of the graves. “The war had a profound influence on me,” he would say. The paintings, by Colville, are a testimony to his memory. Colville believed that evil can reach everyone suddenly and adjust the course of history. Also, technology influenced Colville and his paintings. Most historians would say that his father and grandfather influenced him and paintings as well.


As a child, Colville was a student of order, and built model planes, boats and cars. In Horse and Train, Colville uses symmetry, proportion and balance. The artist places the viewer alongside the track as the dark horse gallops directly towards an oncoming train. Horse and Train, Colville depicts an environment of anxiety and ambiguity. The horse is at peace, and undeterred by the oncoming train.

The Horse and Train is one of Colville’s best known works. Many who critique the painting believe that the painting expresses a source of human nervousness and ask the vital question of most: can destiny be altered? The viewer is a helpless witness of an impending disaster, and will never know the outcome because the painter has not painted it yet. In Horse and Train, the artist portrays a choice between the horse and the engineer in the train. The observer witnesses the confrontation between two freedoms; the freedom of the engineer and the freedom of the horse. The horse is free to change direction and the engineer is free to engage the brakes.

Colville has created a sad environment by using dark grey colours,
in Horse and Train. The horse and the train are painted the same dark colour against a gray, cloudy sky. The brightest fundamentals of the picture are; the bright light located on the front of the train and the railwaytracks reflecting the bright light. These two elements draw the viewer’s eyes toward the oncoming train and the horse galloping away from the viewer. The scale of the horse having a small head and large backside makes it appear to be more realistic to the viewer. The railroad lines seem to meet at the horizon creating a feeling of depth, as though the train is a great distance away.


1. Burnett, David. “Colville” Art Gallery of Ontario (1983), pp. 60, 96, 97, 99, 105, 132, 134, 135, and 140.
2. Smart, Tom. “Alex Colville: Return” Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Artworks. (2008) pp.1-143.
3. Art Gallery of Hamilton (2004), “Art Smarts.”
4. Art Gallery of Hamilton (2004), "Canadian A.G.H. Collection Highlights"
5. National Gallery of Canada (2000), “Alex Colville: Milestones.” “A Visual Preview of the Exhibit”
6. National Gallery of Canada (2000), “Alex Colville: Milestones.” “About the Artist”