Louis de Niverville

Lives Lived, written by Tom Miller and published in the Globe and Mail
Louis de Niverville, June 7, 1933 -  Feb 11, 2019

Louis was making a collage. First he painted colours and textures on thin
sheets of paper which were laid on the studio floor to dry. A narrow space
separated the sheets. Cleo, his little tortoise shell cat, was watching from
across the room. She began to walk toward the papers. Louis looked at
her sternly, pointed his finger and said, "AH!" Cleo stopped, then carefully
tip toed between the papers to come over and rub against his legs. Even
the queen of the house had to be careful when Louis was working. In his
early years in Toronto Louis had many pets, but Cleo was the most loved.
When she died at 21 years old, he mourned her deeply and never had
another pet. It hurt too much to lose her. But dinner guests were often
regaled with stories of his beloved pets, and animals constantly appeared
in his paintings and collages.
Another regular theme was family. He came from a large family of thirteen
children but was separated from them for five years when in hospital for
spinal tuberculosis. Years later, in an interview with Joan Murray, he said,
"…those years of anonymity in the hospital developed in me a strong sense
of wanting to be recognized and accepted." At age eleven he rejoined the
family and was able to participate in the experiences of family life. The
aunts and uncles, kids and pets and crazy events like wedding parties
provided many subjects for his work. But he was one person in a big, well
regulated family and longed to be totally in charge of his life.
In 1957, age 24, he moved to Toronto to work as a graphic artist at CBC
and he was determined to live life to the full on his own terms. He made
friends quickly, his work became popular and he loved to party and
entertain friends. He became a very good cook - chef quality. There were
exhibition openings where people lined up to buy his work, and there was
always a celebration after the opening with food and wine, laughter and
lively conversations. And did I mention the wine? In the summer friends
invited him to their cottage in Georgian Bay and there was more delicious
food, wine, card games and swimming in the nude. Throughout his life
Louis entertained and was feted in return. Weekdays were all about work,
and on weekends it was time to socialize and have fun.
Louis based his work on everyday reality and his vivid dreams. He worked
in many media including oil paint, acrylics, air brush, lithography drawing
and most of all his own form of collage. As Merike Weiler commented in
the Toronto Star, "de Niverville's talents for pulling vivid, sometimes
terrifying images from his subconscious, for conjuring dramas from dreams
and memories, has made him something of a cult figure in the Canadian art
world". Indeed, his work was truly unique in Canadian art.
Louis loved to travel and made many trips to Europe. Paris was his
favourite city and Notre Dame his favourite monument. He spent a year
living in Provence with side visits to Spain and Italy. He visited the major
museums and archaeological sites which deepened his understanding of
art history and fed his ambition to create major art works. Seeing the
Japanese woodblock prints in Monet's dining room at Giverny piqued his
interest in Japanese art. However, Louis had an amusing foible for a
traveller. He had a very poor sense of direction. He often told the story of
trying to drive out of Madrid and after an hour coming back to where he had
started. If he said go right you could be pretty sure it was left. But no
matter, sometimes the inadvertent side trips were worth the detour.
Louis had an eye for the unusual and delighted in Canadian folk art. In fact
he and Claude Arsenault opened a gallery in Toronto called Home Again.
They made several trips to Quebec and the Maritimes to meet the artists
buy their work and sell it in Toronto thereby helping to fuel the growing
interest in Canadian folk art. Louis collected folk art and used it in
decorating his homes along with Canadian antique furniture. Two of his
homes were featured in magazines; City and Country Home, 1985, and
Century Home 1993.
Louis was undaunted by big challenges like the huge mural he created for
the Expo Theatre in Montreal. It was 20 feet high by 60 feet long, and he
had no formal training to help him design something so large. But he did it
anyway in the summer of 1966, sweating buckets in a loft space above the
Saint Lawrence Market. In the end he was disappointed in the result, but
he learned from the experience and during his career created several other
large murals.
Louis embraced change and lived in many different places, both in Toronto
and after 1986 in Mount Albert, Vancouver, Victoria and West Vancouver. I
met Louis in 1981 and together we lived in six towns and cities. When he
bought and we renovated an old church in Mount Albert it was a moment of
madness. There Louis created several large works based on nature and
farm country. But Mount Albert was too small and conservative so when he
had an exhibition in Vancouver, and attended the opening at Bau-Xi gallery,
he fell in love with the city and we moved there in 1988. This period of
seventeen years on the west coast was an opportunity to make new
friends, host lots of dinner parties, attend gallery openings, renovate
houses, tend our gardens and discover new public gardens. He especially
enjoyed Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park, the Van Dusen Garden and Queen
Elizabeth Garden. He particularly admired the magnificent variety of trees
in these spectacular gardens.
When a developer bought all the houses in our West Vancouver neighbourhood
we felt it was time to move back to the Toronto area and reconnect
with old friends. We settled in Oakville where once again we renovated a
house and established a large classically inspired garden complete with
Italian fountain. Just as in painting, the structure, the bones, of a garden
were of vital importance for Louis. Having lots of nice plants was not
enough. He wanted clearly defined pathways, large urns and arbors laid
out in a formal design, much like the gardens he'd seen in France and Italy.
The thirteen years in Oakville were busy with making art, visiting art
galleries and exhibitions, tending our garden and visiting with family and
friends at our home, or in Montreal, Toronto and California. As usual
weekdays were devoted to making art, taking daily walks, and quiet
evenings watching favourite T.V. shows or movies. It was a happy,
contented life.
Although he was rather short, Louis had a big presence and was always full
of energy. His zest for living was infectious and the way he lived and
worked set a fine example for his students and other artists. In the last
couple of years some former students and artists visited to tell him how
much his example had enriched their lives and work.
In the autumn of 2018 Louis was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer
which metastasized to his brain. During his very last days he sat in his
wheelchair in the living room, unable to make his hands transform his
experiences into the images which filled his mind. He asked for a collage
of Cleo to be hung where he could see it. He had a view of our garden,
and was surrounded with the furniture and objet d'art acquired over many
years. But most of all I think the image of his beloved Cleo must have
brought back memories of the early years in Toronto when he took control
of his life and became the artist he felt was he was destined to become.
The adventures and accomplishments of a lifetime all brought into focus by
the image he created of a dear old friend.
Louis enjoyed a rich life filled with recognition and friendships for which he
was very grateful. He was also thankful for the excellent care given by the
palliative care team in Oakville. He bravely accepted the fact his life was
ending and knew it was time to say good bye. So as he wished, he passed
away at home peacefully in his sleep. And we can be thankful that his spirit
lives on in the wonderfully imaginative art works he created for all of us to
enjoy.
With deepest gratitude for the life and love we shared
Tom Miller
Artist Work
The Return Of The Adjutant
56 in x 48 in
acrylic & airbrush on canvas