Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven
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Canada, in the first years of the twentieth century, only held a population comparable in number to that of one major European city, despite being the second-largest country in the world. Its art scene was thriving, if behind the times, with established artists turning out variations of late nineteenth-century European styles. Canada’s own vast wilderness was deemed by the art establishment to be too raw and too wild to provide a suitable subject for the fine artist.


Around 1910, a new generation of artists, determined to challenge this notion, began to form in Toronto. Their aim was to find a visual language with which to paint their native landscape – new, modern, vibrant, and uniquely Canadian. Several of them worked in a commercial engraving company, Grip Ltd. (and later, Rous & Mann): Tom Thomson, Arthur Lismer, Franklin Carmichael, Frederick Horsman Varley, and J.E.H. MacDonald. They came together with Lawren Harris, who had been actively pursuing his own vision of the Canadian landscape, Frank Johnston, and A.Y. Jackson from Montreal to begin their modernist experiment.


Thomson died tragically in 1917, having made inspiring progress towards a new Canadian art in his brief, brilliant career (and World War I was another potent interruption); but in 1920, the others went on to establish Canada’s first and most famous collective of artists, the Group of Seven. Between 1920 and 1931, they held eight ground-breaking exhibitions in Toronto. In 1924 and 1925, they were received with acclaim in London at the British Empire Exhibitions. Their paintings were subsequently sent on tour to various cities in Great Britain where they received further accolades from the critics and the public.


Tom Thomson (1877–1917) was born in Claremont and raised in Leith, near Owen Sound, Ontario. Unlike his colleagues, he had little or no formal training as an artist, although he always drew. After moving to Seattle and attending business school there, he returned to Canada and was employed in 1907 as a commercial artist at Grip Ltd., a highly-regarded commercial engraving firm. J.E.H. MacDonald (1873–1932) was his Head of Section; Arthur Lismer (1885–1969), Frederick H. Varley (1881–1969), and Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945) were to work there also. Inspired by MacDonald’s example, Thomson began to paint seriously in the countryside around Toronto. In 1912, he “discovered” Algonquin Park, and began to spend as much time as possible there.


In 1914, one of the Group of Seven’s and Tom Thomson’s most important patrons, Dr. James MacCallum, arranged to buy enough pictures over the coming year to allow Thomson to focus entirely on painting. From this point on until his premature death, Thomson spent as much time as the weather allowed exploring Algonquin, arriving as the ice broke in spring and staying until the harsh winter drove him back to Toronto. He was an accomplished canoeist, an expert fisherman, and occasionally earned extra money as a park guide.At the same time, he painted hundreds of electrifying small sketches, the most promising of which he then worked up into finished canvases in Toronto over the winter months, selling just enough to prevent him from having to return to work as a commercial artist.


During the summer months spent in Algonquin Park, Thomson produced only sketches. During his winters in Toronto, he would then choose which sketches he considered to be suitable for working up into full-scale canvases. During this period of his life, Thomson produced a limited number of larger canvases. Some of these were submitted to juried exhibitions.


Apart from changing the format from the sketch’s standard rectangular shape to something more like a square, this pair of sketch and finished canvas is remarkable for how few changes Thomson made: the rarely-seen canvas looks very similar to the sketch. Both, like several other key works, were once owned by Dr. MacCallum, the Group of Seven’s, and Thomson’s, most significant early patron.


Thomson’s The West Wind is amongst the most famous and beloved paintings in Canada. Fred Housser declared that the art establishment considered Canada’s native pine tree unpaintable – Thomson proved them wrong.



On July 8, 1917, Tom Thomson’s canoe was found empty on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park. His body was found on July 16. The circumstances surrounding Thomson’s death have never been fully known. This situation has led to much speculation and many theories have been put forward about what might have occurred.The artist’s death was a serious blow. His friends were shocked to learn of Thomson’s passing. A memorial cairn was erected overlooking the spot where he died. It is now a place of pilgrimage for Canadian art lovers. The wooden shack where he painted his most famous works has been moved from Toronto and re-erected on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.


Thomson’s paintings, and his sketches in particular, provided powerful inspiration for his surviving colleagues. The artists who formed the original Group of Seven in 1920 always cited Thomson’s significant contribution to Canadian art.


Canoe Lake station was where Thomson would disembark from the Toronto train. He often stayed at Mowat Lodge on the lake, a lodging house standing in the remains of what had been a thriving logging community, now defunct. Canoe Lake was the base from which Thomson canoed across the whole of Algonquin Park, and on July 8, 1917, it was across Canoe Lake that he set out on his last journey.



The Group of Seven artists all produced sketches in the same way as, and often inspired by, Thomson, but only J.E.H. MacDonald in particular, and also on occasion Lawren Harris and Frederick Varley, approached Thomson’s level of creativity in the sketch medium. MacDonald’s sketches for Beaver Dam and October Shower Gleam, two of his most famous paintings, show a more direct relationship with the final finished work, while other sketches, such as Autumn Leaves, Batchewana Wood and Woodland Brook, Algoma revel in bright colours and contrasts.


In 1913, Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald visited Buffalo together to see the Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art at the Albright Art Gallery. With considerable excitement, they recognized kindred spirits in artists like Gustav Fjaestad and Edvard Munch, and Scandinavian landscape painting seemed to provide a useful model for something similar in Canada.



In the aftermath of Thomson’s death, his friends naturally felt a need to find inspiration away from the sad associations of Algonquin Park. The region of Algoma, which could only be reached by means of the Algoma Central Railway, lies north of Algonquin Park, above Georgian Bay and east of Lake Superior. In order to paint in this area, an arrangement was made to have a railway boxcar converted into studio space and living quarters. The boxcar could be moved by train to a siding and left for a period of time in order to allow the artists to paint in the surrounding area. Later, it could be re-attached to the train to be moved elsewhere. The boxcar trips to the Algoma region continued from 1918 to 1921.


Algoma was a lush, wild territory of tumbling streams, deep lakes, and tree-covered hills. Numerous sketches and ultimately canvases were produced from these trips. The camaraderie established between the artists and the periods of concentrated art production resulted in some extremely successful works.



Tom Thomson had been raised on the shores of Georgian Bay, the vast, island-strewn body of water that forms almost a separate lake joined to the east of Lake Huron. Dr. MacCallum had a cottage there, at Go Home Bay, where both Thomson and A.Y. Jackson were invited to stay in 1914.


Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and A.Y. Jackson all painted Georgian Bay in extreme fall weather. Varley, like Lismer, a Yorkshireman born in Sheffield, was the odd man out amongst the Group in being primarily interested in portraiture. Yet Varley was a very skilled painter and his Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay is one of the Group of Seven’s finest achievements in landscape painting. Lismer painted much the same view in his more graphic style, and Jackson’s March Storm, Georgian Bay captures the bay at its bleakest and most forbidding. The pine-fringed rocky islands also caught the eyes of both Jackson and Thomson.


Frederick Varley, like fellow Sheffield-born Arthur Lismer, had enthusiastically embraced the “cause” of the nascent Group of Seven on emigrating to Canada by donning “bushwhacker” gear and spending the autumn of 1914 with Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park (albeit with wife and children in tow). Highly trained and experienced as Varley was, his Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay is a masterclass of wind and light, and a tribute to Thomson’s The West Wind.


Arthur Lismer’s Evening Silhouette is a bold, almost expressionist work. The artist’s stylistic interpretation of the landscape in this painting reduces the Group of Seven’s popular “lone pine” theme to a decorative shape against an unearthly sky. In this, it has something in common with Lawren Harris’s response to burnt stumps against the bare backdrop of Lake Superior’s north shore; a conscious move towards something starker and more visually challenging.


Although raised on the shores of Georgian Bay, Thomson didn’t find the area particularly conducive to his work as an artist (there was too much socialising for his taste). He cut short his 1914 visit there in order to return to Algonquin Park, but not before he had responded to the poetry of pine trees on the rocky edge of Pine Island.


A.Y. Jackson was from Montreal. His work had caught the eye of Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald as early as 1911; they recognized that he clearly had aspirations in common with the Toronto artists and was frustrated by the reactionary art scene in Montreal. Jackson was lured to Toronto by MacDonald and Harris, then persuaded to stay (he had been toying with the idea of moving to the United States) by means of a similar offer from Dr. MacCallum as was made to Thomson – a promise to buy sufficient paintings to pay for a year’s artistic activity. Thomson and Jackson briefly shared a studio in early 1914 in another of Harris's and MacCallum’s initiatives – a studio building intended as a base for like-minded artists, in the Rosedale district of Toronto.


Jackson was an incredibly active and adventurous artist, travelling widely all over Canada from the Rockies to the Arctic, but he preferred to spend his winters in his native Quebec. Acutely conscious of the Quebecois landscape’s rapidly disappearing qualities, his paintings record vernacular buildings that he felt would soon be gone forever – the barns, farms and villages of rural Quebec, marooned in deep snow, or emerging from snow in early spring.


By 1922, Frank Johnston had already effectively seceded from the Group of Seven. Furthermore, he had left Toronto to take up a teaching post in Winnipeg. He was a highly skilled painter, albeit with an eye to the marketplace. Here, he has captured a view of Kenora across Lake of the Woods and transformed it into a virtuoso and glamorous cloud study, highlighting the distant view with shafts of sunshine.



It was inevitable that the adventurous A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris would be amongst the first of the Group to “discover” the pictorial potential of the Canadian Rockies. Lawren Harris in particular was absorbed by the sublimity of the great mountains, formalizing their powerful forms into almost abstract patterns devoid of unnecessary detail.But it was to be J.E.H MacDonald on whom the Rocky Mountains were to have the most powerful impact. First arriving there in 1924, and in spite of being the most frail of the Group (he “was a quiet, unadventurous person, who could not swim, or paddle, or swing an axe, or find his way in the bush,” according to the much more gung-ho Jackson), MacDonald found his way back to the Rockies time and time again. This sudden interest in mountain scenery amongst the Group did not go unnoticed: one critic observed that the Group “have been successively, and generally successfully, house-haunted, tree-mad, lake-lunatic, river-ridden, birch-bedlamed, aspen-addled, and rock-cracked. This year they are mountain-mad.”Frederick Varley, meanwhile, had relocated to Vancouver in 1926 to teach. From there came a series of dramatic and luminous landscapes of striking colours. He made trips to coastal mountains west of the Rockies and produced some compelling views of the great mountains.



For many, the artistic path taken by Lawren Harris is clearly distinct from the other Group members, his work becoming ever more stripped-down. Influenced very much by the tenets of Theosophy, then experiencing a particular vogue amongst the creative community in North America, he was acutely conscious of the spiritual elements within nature, and sought to pare down his landscape paintings to the bare bones and simplest, most profound shapes.


Harris was a highly sophisticated European-trained artist, whose personal artistic journey crossed many genres. He painted urban scenes, portraits, winter landscapes influenced by Scandinavian art, and many views of Algoma. However, as Jackson put it: “The Algoma country was too opulent for Harris; he wanted something bare and stark.” He soon searched for a landscape to reflect his sublime view of nature, moving ever further north and west. In the awesome mountains of the Rockies and the vast and overpowering north shore of Lake Superior, where bush fires had dramatically cleared the landscape of any extraneous detail, he found the kind of subject he craved.In 1930, Harris and Jackson were invited by the Government to visit and paint the Arctic. Here Harris revelled in the sculptured, wind-hollowed forms of blue-green icebergs. His Arctic paintings paved the way for the future: After the disbanding of the Group of Seven in 1933 (and MacDonald having died the year before), Harris went on to become an abstract artist.