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Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven
Organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

October 2, 2010 to January 30, 2011

Canadians have long been taught to view Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven as the creators of a wholly indigenous style of art. A uniquely “Canadian” artistic vocabulary was formed as they learned to paint the Shield country – its distorted vegetation, choppy shorelines, and chilly blue skies – on its own terms, unsullied by European influences. As the painters disembarked from their canoes and assembled their box-easels on the shores of northern lakes, their minds were, so they claimed, as blank as their canvases.

Yet other influences, beside the Shield landscape, are clearly there. One of the more intriguing facts I discovered while curating Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven was that in 1912 A.Y. Jackson’s address in Paris (where he was studying art and visiting exhibitions by the dozen) was 26 rue de Fleurus. The address is significant because Gertrude Stein, the great enthusiast for modernist art and a friend of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, lived directly across the narrow street at number 27. Gertrude and her brother Leo were generous hosts who welcomed many young artists into their home, including the Montreal painter John Lyman.

I never found evidence from his letters that Jackson himself was invited across the threshold of “27” (as the Steins’ apartment was known) to meet their friends or see their collection of paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin and Picasso. Even so, he certainly would have known of its intellectual and artistic ferment, and he was, like other members of the Group of Seven, an aficionado of modern European art. The “gods” worshipped by the Group of Seven, he told a cousin in a 1921 letter, were “Cézanne, Van Gogh and other moderns.”

These facts help us cast the Group of Seven in a light slightly different from the one in which we usually see them, or in which they themselves wanted to be seen. The McMichael’s new exhibition situates the work of Thomson and the Group of Seven, as well as a number of their contemporaries such as Emily Carr and David Milne, within the broader context of international modernism. Extensive studies on the Continent by several members – especially Jackson in France and Lawren Harris in Germany – made them familiar with up-to-date artistic trends. Harris admitted that as a young art student he was “strongly attracted” to the works of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne. Later, however, he was anxious to downplay their influences, claiming that when he returned to Toronto in 1909 his whole interest was in the Canadian scene: “It was, in truth,” he wrote many years later, “as though I had never been to Europe.”

It’s common for artists to claim to take their cue from nature rather than other painters. Van Gogh believed greatness could be achieved “by working from nature ... without imitating other people.” But the painter’s mind can never be wiped clean. Every artist, no matter how innovative or original, is inevitably a fusion of prior influences and the legacy of artistic forebears. The Canadian painters adapted the pictorial achievements of the European avant-garde – bright colours, linear rhythms, the divided touch – to produce a technique (famously dubbed the “Hot Mush” style) suitable to capturing the unique features of their local landscape. To make a claim for European influences is to take nothing away from the power or originality of Thomson and the Group of Seven. Instead, it’s to put them on an international stage as daringly modern painters who bear comparison with their “gods” and contemporaries abroad. —Ross King, author and curator of Defiant Spirits

Funding support for this exhibition provided by

The McLean Foundation

Watch award-winning author and curator Ross King speak about Defiant Spirits!


Exhibition Merchandise

Leave in the Brook by J.E.H. MacDonald

J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932)
Leaves in the Brook, 1919
oil on canvas
52.7 x 65 cm
Gift of the Founders, Robert and Signe McMichael
McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Autumn, Algonquin Park by Tom Thomson
Tom Thomson (1877-1917)
Autumn, Algonquin Park , 1916-1917
oil on canvas
51.2 x 41 cm,
Gift of Mr. C.F.Wood
McMichael Canadian Art Collection


Defiant Spirits by Ross King
Purchase the exhibition catalogue online.

Purchase this book online.


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