Franz Johnston | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Franz Johnston

Francis Hans Johnston (called Frank, and later Franz), painter (born 19 June 1888 in Toronto, ON; died 9 July 1949 in Toronto).
Fire-swept, Algoma
Oil on canvas, 1920, by Franz Johnston (courtesy National Gallery of Canada/Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada, Ottawa).
Group of Seven Members
Members of the Group of Seven at the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto, clockwise from the left: A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. Macdonald (courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario).

Francis Hans Johnston (called Frank, and later Franz), painter (born 19 June 1888 in Toronto, ON; died 9 July 1949 in Toronto). A member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, Franz Johnston was one of the founding members of the Group of Seven and among the most productive and successful artists of his generation.

Education and Early Life and Career

Among those who founded the Group of Seven in 1920, Frank Johnston was unusually well trained in academic practice, first at Toronto's Central Technical School with Gustav Hahn and at the then Central Ontario School of Art with William Cruikshank and George Andrew Reid. He studied in Germany from 1904 to 1907. After a stint at Grip Ltd. in 1908, where he met Tom Thomson and J.E.H. MacDonald, he moved to the United States and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia under Philip Leslie Hale and Daniel Garber. He did commercial work at Carleton Illustrators Studios in New York before returning to Toronto in 1915. In 1917–18 he was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials to record the activities of Canadian flying personnel training for overseas duty. Camp Borden (1919), for instance, is a highly realistic depiction from an aerial point of view of two fighter planes soaring over a brown autumn landscape, the clouds mirroring the colour of the landscape.

The Group of Seven and Beyond

Johnston's landscapes reflect his knowledge of turn-of-the-20th-century ideals, being more atmospheric and decorative than those of the Group of Seven. Moose Pond, for instance, has a wall of flat, drooping trees in autumnal shades of orange, and Fire Swept Algoma (1920) has a burnt-out stand of trees in the foreground, the rolling hills behind rendered in a soft pastel purple and blue. The difference in ideology and technique may partially explain why Johnston participated only in the Group of Seven's first show (1920). Frank Johnston may also have felt that the adverse publicity generated by the show might affect his sales.

By 1921, Johnston had left Toronto to become the principal of the Winnipeg School of Art (1921–24). He later returned to Toronto and taught at the Ontario College of Art (now the Ontario College of Art and Design University) (1927–29). Johnston formally broke with the Group of Seven in 1922 and changed his name to Franz Johnston in 1927, purportedly because his New York astrologist said he would never find success with the name Francis or Frank.

A versatile artist equally comfortable painting in oil, watercolour or tempera, Johnston painted everything from pastoral scenes in the Ontario and Québec countrysides to the landscape and peoples of the Arctic, where he was sent in 1939 by Gilbert LaBine, vice president of Eldorado Gold Mines. As his career evolved, he moved toward a traditional form of realism closer to that of 19th-century painters such as Homer Watkins than to the more modernist approach of such artists as Tom Thomson or Lawren Harris. Serenity Lake of the Woods (1922), for instance, is a view out over a lake from a slight elevation, the centre of the picture dominated by a huge, sun-struck cloud. A factory smokestack spewing smoke is visible in the distance; dark rainclouds creep into the scene from the image’s upper edge. Mid-Summer Woods (1930), on the other hand, is an intimate and brightly coloured view of a break in the woods, sun and blue sky shining down through the dappled green leaves. And in what may be his most famous work, Shack in the Woods (1940), there is a humble cottage nestled in snow woods, sunlight glancing off the fresh snow.

The Group of Seven

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