Thomas John Thomson, painter (born 5 August 1877 in Claremont, ON; died 8 July 1917 in Algonquin Provincial Park, ON). An early inspiration for what became The Group of Seven, Tom Thomson was probably the most influential and enduringly popular Canadian artist of the early part of the twentieth century. His paintings The West Wind (1917) and Jack Pine (1916-1917)are familiar Canadian icons.
Thomson came from Scottish Canadian stock. Born in the town of Claremont in Pickering Township, Ontario, the sixth of ten children, he grew up in Leith on a farm near Owen Sound. His father was something of a naturalist; a cousin, Dr. William Brodie, nine years older than his father, was one of the finest naturalists of the day (from 1903 until his death in 1909, he was director of the Biological Department of what is today the Royal Ontario Museum). Thomson collected specimens with Dr. Brodie, who gave him the rudiments of a naturalist's training. From Brodie, Thomson learned how to combine keen observation of nature with a sense of reverence for its mystery.
Brought up in a creative family, Thomson learned to play several instruments, among them the mandolin. He also learned to draw and paint. As a young man, having missed high school as a result of chronic illness, he enrolled in the Canada Business College in Chatham (he is listed in the city directory in 1902), then attended the Acme Business College in Seattle in 1903, a school run by his eldest brother George and a friend, F.R. McLaren.
In Seattle, Thomson got his first job with a commercial art company. It was as an engraver with a firm run by C.C. Maring, one of the graduates of the Chatham Business College. He worked briefly for Maring & Ladd (which became Maring & Blake soon after he arrived due to a change in ownership), then was hired by their strongest competitor, the Seattle Engraving Company, at an increase of 10 dollars a week. He doubtless looked forward to a career in Seattle, probably wanting to settle down, advance in his trade and marry as his brother Ralph did in 1906. That he did not was likely the result of an incident involving Alice Elinor Lambert, eight or nine years his junior, to whom he proposed. At the crucial moment the effervescent Miss Lambert nervously giggled, causing the very sensitive Thomson to abandon his matrimonial ambitions and leave for Toronto. It was on his return from Seattle that he decided to become an artist.
The Evolution of an Artist
In terms of his development as a painter, Thomson's experience up to this point was primarily that of an amateur. In order to become a professional artist, he had to overcome numerous obstacles, among them his lack of knowledge of the technical side of painting. This situation began to change with his enrolment in 1906 in night school at the Central Ontario School of Art and Industrial Design (the 19th century precursor to today’s Ontario College of Art and Design University), as well as through his contact, beginning in 1908, with a lively group of comrades at Grip Limited, a well-known commercial art firm.
When Thomson joined Grip, the company was at a crucial stage of its development. It had a good art director, A.H. Robson, and a painter, J.E.H. MacDonald, who was the anchor of the design team. Thomson worked with MacDonald, and it was under his tutelage and encouragement that Thomson's genius began to flower. He submitted his work at the firm to MacDonald for criticism, and showed the sketches that he painted on the weekends to MacDonald and others at the firm. MacDonald and men such as Robson, a member of the Toronto Art Students' League (see Artists' Organizations), praised the truth to nature in Thomson's work.
In 1911 Thomson embarked on a camping trip to the Mississagi Forest Reserve. Upon his return he was told by his friends at Grip that his sketches made during this trip expressed a real sense of the character of the northern landscape. The next year he returned to Rous & Mann Limited (the firm to which Robson, and then all of Thomson’s colleagues from Grip, moved in 1912), bringing with him works that he had painted that year on a fishing trip to Algonquin Park. These sketches of 1912 showed a tremendous advance and marked his real start as an artist. The key to their interest lay in their vision of wilderness, a great world that seemed unsullied by human civilization. They revealed a way of portraying the natural world that was poetic but still informed by direct experience.
To develop his first major painting, A Northern Lake (1913), which can be found in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Thomson selected one of the sketches he'd done on the trip to Algonquin Park and transformed it into a picture with greater depth in the foreground. This method of working from an on-the-spot sketch to a finished studio painting became his common practice. These two ways of working reveal contrasting sides of Thomson’s artistic personality: the sketch with its vivacity and on-the-spot reportage recalls the spontaneity of the lyric poem; the canvas created in the studio is akin to an epic poem with effects adapted from such styles of the day as art nouveau and post-impressionism.
In the autumn of 1914, Thomson and his friends A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley camped in Algonquin Park. By that time the artist was transposing, eliminating, and applying various types of design to his work in order to evolve his conception of landscape painting. Eventually this would become the basis for a style that would bring national prominence to the Group of Seven, a movement that blended a growing Canadian consciousness with the theme of landscape in paint. Thomson had informally discussed his ideas about this new approach to landscape with MacDonald and also with Lawren Harris.
By 1915, his unusual talents known to few other than his peers, Thomson was creating the oil paint sketches and canvases that have come to represent Canada as it is imagined by most Canadians. At 37 years of age, Thomson was living in Algonquin Park from spring to autumn, and in Toronto during the winter. He had at first shared Studio One of the Studio Building in Toronto with A.Y. Jackson (the Studio Building had opened its doors in 1914), and then, when Jackson left, with Franklin Carmichael. He eventually moved to a shack attached to the building. Here he painted his large canvases and entertained friends like Dr. James MacCallum, an ophthalmologist and his patron, and Lawren Harris. He was an intense, wry and gentle artist with a canny sensibility, one of the first painters to give acute visual form to the Canadian landscape as he discovered it in Algonquin Park, a section of northern Ontario that had been set aside as a conservation area in 1893.
Death and Posterity
Tom Thomson died in 1917, leaving behind about 50 canvases and over 300 sketches. The circumstances surrounding his death have become a staple of writers, amateur sleuths and serious scholars. An article in 1977 in the Toronto Star by Roy MacGregor suggests that Thomson was murdered by Shannon Fraser and that Annie Fraser, the murderer's wife, told the story to friends. Such evidence as we have is conflicting and perplexing. In all likelihood, Thomson’s death was an accident, though we will never be sure of the exact circumstances.
An examination of Thomson's oeuvre reveals how quickly he came into his own. An amateur artist, he found his very distinctive path by 1914. Nature was clearly his touchstone, and throughout his career he turned to it as his muse. His method was to capture transient moments of light and atmosphere by sketching quickly in oil from nature, sometimes developing these sketches into full-blown celebrations of the land. His evolution was toward a relaxed, brilliant handling of paint. At his best, Thomson disposed trees and bushes in his paintings like notes in a finely phrased tune, creating patterns that interlocked in intricate counterpoint.
Music was a connection with paint (he told a friend that "Imperfect notes destroy the soul of music. So does imperfect colour destroy the soul of the canvas"), and it isn't a big leap to see in his design a correlation to musical intervals, contributing a sort of rhythm, touch and tone to his paintings. Most engaging for the viewer are his bold use of colour and his sense of spectacle channelled through an experience of northern nature. Although few people are shown, the views that he painted suggest places where people can meditate in quiet.
Masterpieces like The West Wind and Jack Pine present a similar motif of a tree or trees on a rocky shore that conveys a sense of iconic grandeur. Thomson's pictures, with their rich colours, often have a sense of movement, of dynamism and drive. His best-looking paintings to contemporary viewers are his lively sketches with their strong forms. Executed in a palette of red, pink, brown, light and dark blue, with a finesse suited to a naturalist, Thomson's paintings embody a truly national vision.