Periods, Groups & Movements: Group of Seven & Tom Thomson

Thomas John "Tom" Thomson (August 5, 1877 – July 8, 1917) was an influential Canadian artist of the early 20th century. He directly influenced a group of Canadian painters that would come to be known as the Group of Seven, and though he died before they formally formed, he is sometimes incorrectly credited as being a member of the group itself. Thomson died under mysterious circumstances.

They called themselves “The Group of Seven” for their first exhibition on May 7, 1920. Reviewers were more descriptive. The contents of “a drunkard’s stomach” said one. Critical opinion would change, however, and by the peak of their fame in the mid-fifties, reproductions of their paintings hung on classroom walls in every school in the country. Their works held pride of place in Canadian museums and every discussion of Canadian art inevitably acknowledged their importance to the evolution of a “national” vision.

But how much did the art of the Group of Seven really have to do with an authentically national inspiration?

Four decades after Confederation, when the Group of Seven came on the scene, Canada was finding its feet as a nation – politically, socially and economically. In the realm of culture, however, it had not yet wrested its independence from Old World traditions. Canadian landscape art consisted primarily of anonymous views seen through the cloudy screen of European academicism. The small community of Canadian art collectors had little interest in artistic innovation.

In this moribund atmosphere, a group of painters began meeting in Toronto as a kind of mutual support group, to look at each others’ paintings, to share ideas and to discuss the sorry state of affairs. They included Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley. Another artist, Tom Thomson was a member of the small circle, but he died before the group formally organized (he died under suspicious circumstances – he was found floating in a river in an Ontario park with a head injury).

Thomson, however, had a profound effect on the formation of the group. An untrained but extremely talented painter, he was an outdoorsman who encouraged the other members to paint the Northern wilderness. It was here that they found the imagery that would imprint itself on the Canadian consciousness: depictions of the rugged wind-swept forest panoramas of the Canadian Shield that would eventually be equated with a romanticized notion of Canadian strength and independence.

Despite their emphasis on the need for a specifically “native” expression, the Group were aware of and drew inspiration from the French Post-Impressionists Van Gogh and Gauguin. But the real turning point in their search for a style came in 1912, when MacDonald and Harris traveled to Buffalo to see an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian painting. The two friends were struck by the approach of the Scandinavians, their use of simple areas of flat, bright colour to create vivid depictions of Northern landscape. They realized that the subjects of these paintings could as easily have been Canada’s Northern wilderness. It was the synthesis of Northern subject with this new treatment that created the distinctive images that would become the hallmark of the Group of Seven.

From the start, the Group’s exhibitions sparked controversy, and if anything it was this heated debate that kick-started their fame. The negative reviews and letters to the editors received clever and passionate responses from the painters and their supporters and the discussion was always directed to the importance of their work as the product of true nationalistic expression.

Other factors contributed to their success. Several of the Group were excellent teachers, writers and speakers and they worked energetically with the National Gallery and with other groups to mount touring exhibitions that showcased their artworks—shows to the US, Great Britain and to Paris. It helped, too, that the Director of the National Gallery, Eric Brown, was a strong supporter.

Members of the original Group of Seven, Toronto 1920. Clockwise from left front: A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Lawren Harris, Barker Firley (not a member), Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald (Art Gallery of Ontario).
Something else worked in their favour. The bright colours and bold patterning favoured by members of the Group (most of whom had worked as designers) lent itself ideally to reproduction and mass distribution.

Nationalism created the Group of Seven, but in the end it limited their accomplishment. In time their influence waned. The Group were so successful in presenting their art as the visual expression of nationalism that the quality of their art is often overlooked. Taken as a whole, the members of the Group varied in achievement, just as individual works varied in quality. Often the most celebrated paintings, the ones most commonly reproduced, seem overblown and stale when seen “in the flesh.” Their small oil sketches, however, especially those by MacDonald, Varley, Jackson and also by Thomson, include some of their most inspired paintings, full of life and feeling.

The Group introduced the idea that Canadian art could be important, that it could make a noise, and that it might be seen on the international stage. It galvanized the national art community and in the end it stimulated the development of the museums and government bodies that would pave the road for artists who followed. Russell Bingham is a subject editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Tom Thomson by Dennis Reid, Charles C. Hill – Paperback: 392 pages; Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group (Sep 1, 2010)

A visually stunning volume, with 140 full-colour plates of the artist's work, and 100 black-and-white photos. Essays are written by art writers and curators, leading authorities on Thomson and his place in the Canadian cultural landscape, and give the book a complex, critical perspective on Thomson's life.

Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven by Ian A.C. Dejardin, Anna Hudson, Katerina Atanassova, Nils Ohlsen, Mariëtta Jansen – Hardcover: 208 pages; Philip Wilson Publishers (Dec 15, 2011)

Tom Thomson developed an artistic language that captured the unique qualities of the Canadian landscape - dazzling in color and in tune with the subtle changing of the seasons. After his untimely death, Thomson's friends organized a memorial exhibition, and followed this up by forming probably the most famous artistic force in Canadian art history: the Group of Seven.

The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson: An Introduction by Anne Newlands – Age Range: 10 and up; Paperback: 64 pages; Firefly Books (Jan 18, 2008)

Canada's most renowned artists, the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, celebrated the country's wild beauty. They saw in the untamed land a reflection of the national spirit, and called themselves "adventurers in paint."

The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson by David P. Silcox – Hardcover: 448 pages; Firefly Books (Sep 6, 2003)

The circle of gifted and zealous Canadian painters that dubbed itself the Group of Seven in Toronto in 1920 after working together a good dozen years would have been the Group of Eight if Tom Thomson, who, along with Lawren Harris, painted the most recognizable of the influential band's resplendent images, hadn't drowned in 1917. Art historian Silcox, a wonderfully lucid stylist, describes this pioneering group as "socially responsible, serious, fervent, egalitarian, and sensitive to the concerns of ordinary people," even though they failed to accept women artists as their equals, and expertly chronicles their mission to create an "all-Canadian art." Guided by the transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, they sought to capture the spirituality inherent in nature, and consequently painted astonishingly rich, dramatic, even exalted landscapes. This definitive volume presents 400 supreme color reproductions, many of works never published before, thus covering the entire spectrum of the proficient and prolific group's magnificent output, which includes moody industrial, urban, and war scenes as well as idealized visions of pristine wilderness. Although each artist has his distinct style, every painting is vibrantly, radiantly, and gloriously alive: a veritable hymn to life. —Donna Seaman Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson: An Introduction by Anne Newlands – Reading level: Ages 9-12; Paperback: 66 pages; Firefly Books (Feb 1, 1995)

Tom Thomson: An Introduction to His Life and Art by David P. Silcox – Hardcover: 64 pages; Firefly Books (Jun 1, 2002)

Tom Thomson stands as the most important artist in Canadian history. A forerunner of the Group of Seven, Thomson crated paintings that shaped the way Canadian view their land.

Although he died before he was forty, Thomson's compelling works ignited a powerful national art movement and created lasting icons for a young country. His mysterious death continues to stir speculation and spin off theories but he emotional response to his paintings is stronger than ever.

This illustrated introduction to Thomson will provide all the background and insight readers need to appreciate his work. Sections include: Thomson's childhood on a farm near Owen Sound; and his early years; his career as a commercial artist; the influence of Lawren Harris and J.E.H. Macdonald; his increasing fame as an artist; his discovery of Algonquin Park and the mystery surrounding his death.

Tom Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter (Amazing Stories) by Jim Poling – Paperback: 128 pages; Altitude Publishing (Canada) (Oct 15, 2003)

An overturned canoe. A body recovered. Presumably Thomson drowned. That should have been the end of it. It was only the beginning." This book will be especially fascinating for all readers interested in: biography history visual arts mystery Tom Thomson is perhaps Canada's most famous artist. His short and glorious career was abruptly and brutally ended on July 8, 1917. Since the recovery of Thomson's body, theories as to the cause of his death—accident? murder?—have preoccupied sleuths for more than 90 years.

Tom Thomson: Trees by Joan Murray – Hardcover: 144 pages; McArthur & Company Publishing, Ltd.; 1st Canadian edition (Dec 25, 1999)

Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years by Ottelyn Addison – Paperback: 98 pages; McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Limited; 1st paperback edition (1975)

The Best of the Group of Seven by Joan Murray, Lawren Harris – Paperback: 96 pages; McClelland & Stewart (Sep 11, 1993)

A Treasury of Tom Thomson by Joan Murray – Paperback: 160 pages; Douglas & McIntyre (Mar 6, 2012)

In the spring of 1918 Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald, two members of the soon-to-be-formed Group of Seven, met in the Studio Building in Toronto. Their friend Tom Thomson had died in mysterious circumstances the year before and, together, they determined to establish him as one of Canada's great artists. Most of his paintings and sketches were stacked up in the studio, and they decided on a plan. They would select the best, mark their comments on the back of these works, and make sure they got into Canada's most prestigious public and private collections.

These two great artists choose to honour Thomson in this way because they had been his mentors and friends. Along with other painters such as A.Y. Jackson, they had taught him about current art movements in Europe and coached him in painting techniques. Thomson learned quickly, and, in the three or four years before his death, he combined this knowledge and these skills with his own prodigious talent and intimacy with nature. His friends recognized that, in many ways, they would never be able to paint like him. The pupil had become the master - and Harris and MacDonald, together with Jackson, wanted to be sure that he would be recognized and remembered.

In later years, collectors such as Ken Thomson and Robert McMichael assembled their selection of Thomson masterpieces, as did private collectors today. Art historian Joan Murray has constructed this treasury with all these choices in mind - and written an insightful commentary on each one. Knowing the story that lies behind Thomson's greatest works helps us to view these paintings with new insight and appreciation. We understand what makes these works special.

In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven by Jim Waddington, Sue Waddington, Tom Smart (Introduction) – Hardcover: 256 pages; Goose Lane Editions; 1st edition (Oct 8, 2013)

In July of 1977, Jim and Sue Waddington began a thirty-six year journey of discovery that has culminated in this remarkable achievement, In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven. Determined to locate, document, and photograph the actual landscapes that inspired and influenced the brushes of A.Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris, A.J. Casson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Tom Thomson, and Frederick Varley, the Waddingtons embarked on an artistic expedition that carried them across Canada from sea to sea to sea.

Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King – Paperback: 504 pages; Douglas & McIntyre; Reprint edition (Oct 11, 2011) Best Seller

Beginning in 1912, Defiant Spirits traces the artistic development of Tom Thomson and the future members of the Group of Seven, Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley, over a dozen years in Canadian history.

Northern Lights: Masterpieces of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven by Joan Murray – Hardcover: 200 pages; Key Porter Books (Oct 1, 1995)

We are drawn immediately to their powerful, dramatic visions of a vast and austere land. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Group of seven, contemporary Canadian art expert Joan Murray has chosen more than 125 works of art for inclusion in this volume, including some paintings never before seen by the public. (1994)

Group of Seven by National Gallery of Canada by Charles C. Hill – Hardcover: 376 pages; McClelland & Stewart (Nov 11, 1995)

It has been some 25 years since the last historical survey of Canada's important "Group of Seven" was undertaken, so this is a welcome addition to the literature of Canadian art. Hill, who is currently the curator of Canadian art for the National Gallery of Canada, lends his expertise to this study of the small group of artists who found abundant material in Canada's rich landscapes to promote a truly national art during the 1920s.

The book complements a new touring exhibition of the Group of Seven's work that has been mounted by the National Gallery.

Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm by Harold Town, David P. Silcox – Hardcover: 240 pages; Firefly Books; 25th anniversary edition (Sep 1, 2001)

Tom Thomson: Design For A Canadian Hero by Joan Murray, Joan Murray – Hardcover: 164 pages; Dundurn Press; 1st edition (Nov 30, 1998)

This is an intimate biography of an artist who became a legend after his death, but who in his private life stands revealed as a troubled man who was, in many ways, his own victim. Joan Murray's new biography is part detective work, too: she investigates his beliefs, and the origins of his great masterpieces, and provides a convincing description of the possible circumstances of his death.

The art of Tom Thomson represents one of the high points of Canadian modernism, which flourished in the first two decades of this century. During his brief career, lasting just five years, Thomson evolved a highly intense, naturalistic style, introducing formal innovations and challenging the idiom of the tonal landscape of painters popular in his day.

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