In the early decades of the twentieth century, circumstances brought together several artists who were committed to exploring, through art, the unique character of the Canadian landscape. Collectively they agreed: Canada’s rugged wilderness regions needed to be recorded in a distinctive painting style. This style would break from European tradition and reflect an increasingly nationalistic sentiment.
Today, these men are among Canada’s most famous artists. For many, their works have come to symbolize what is the distinctly Canadian identity.
The Early Years
In their early careers, many of the artists who would later form the Group of Seven were employed at commercial design firms. It was while working at Grip Ltd. that Tom Thomson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, and Franklin Carmichael first met, discovering their common artistic interests.
The McMichael Library/Archives contains an extensive collection of commercial works by these artists, including the distinctive commercial art of Franklin Carmichael. They began taking weekend sketching trips together. They would often gather at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, socializing and discussing new directions for Canadian art.
In 1913, Lawren Harris convinced A.Y. Jackson to move to Toronto from Montreal. In that same year, Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald visited the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York to view an exhibition of Scandinavian paintings. That show was a flashpoint for the creation of the Group. It supported and inspired the artists’ vision for a distinctly “Canadian” style.
The Group of Seven is Born
In 1920, seven artists – Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael and A.Y. Jackson – decided, for the first time, to exhibit as the Group of Seven. The Group’s first exhibition opened at the Art Gallery of Toronto in May 1920. This marks the founding of the Group – an exceptional moment in Canada’s art history for which Lawren Harris is largely credited.
Tom Thomson would not live to see the birth of the Group of Seven. Yet, despite his untimely death in 1917, Thomson’s name became synonymous with the Group. His sketches and finished canvases created a painting style truly representative of the Canadian landscape and experience.
Seven Makes Ten
Despite its name, the Group of Seven membership eventually grew to include ten artists.
Frank Johnston only exhibited in one of the 1920 exhibitions before resigning from the Group.
Following this, A.J. Casson joined the Group in 1926.
In an effort to widen the geographical base beyond Toronto, Edwin Holgate (of Montreal) was asked to join in 1930.
L.L. FitzGerald (of Winnipeg) joined the Group in 1932.
A Lasting Legacy
From its birth in 1920 to the early 1930s, the Group was immensely influential. The final Group of Seven exhibition was held in 1931. Yet, their legacy resonates to this day.
The Group’s Contemporaries
Many artists of the same era as the Group felt that there were concerns that were good alternates to the landscape. The Group's contemporaries included David Milne, Thoreau MacDonald, J.W. Morrice, Clarence Gagnon, Albert H. Robinson, Maurice Cullen and Emily Carr. Read more.
Note: Photographs of the artists courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.