David Silcox’s Exquisite Book on The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson

While in Toronto recently I stayed at a hotel across from the Royal Ontario Museum.  Although I did not have sufficient time to tour the Museum, I briefly stopped by its gift shop.  Browsing through the art books on display I came across an amazing book on the Group of Seven that I had not previously seen and which I had to have.

Once back in Atlanta as I leisurely browsed through the simply named volume, The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, by David Silcox (Firefly Books 2001), I was impressed anew at this amazing collaboration of early twentieth-century artists who helped define a distinctively Canadian style of painting.  (See previous post on OCanadaBlog here.)  It also gave me a greater appreciation in particular for Tom Thomson, but for whose untimely death in 1917, the collective might well have been called the Group of Eight.   As one of the other members, Lawren Harris, noted in a narrative of the Group, “although the name of the group did not originate until after his death, Tom Thomson was, nevertheless, as vital to the movement, as much a part of its formation and development, as any other member.”

Tom Thomson, Autumn Foliage

Silcox’s beautifully compiled book is organized into thematic sections, initially around some broad categories, such as “Icons: Images of Canada,” “The First World War,” and “Cities, Towns and Villages,” and then by geographic regions, including “The East Coast,” “The St. Lawrence River and Quebec,” “Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay,” and “The Prairies, Rockies and West Coast,” among others.   This approach enables a wonderful comparison of each artist’s perspective on the same subjects and geography.  Preceding each section is  a brief narrative by the author that provides historical and cultural context that enriches the understanding of the individual Group members and their works.

Tom Thomson, In the Northland

The Group of Seven’s Landscape Explosion

J.E.H. MacDonald, The Solemn Land

While reading a story in the latest volume of The Journey Prize Stories (more on that collection in a later post) I came across this passing reference to the Group of Seven:  “Straight ahead a group of smallish islands.  Like the Group of Seven but realer and more sad.”  The narrator’s incidental reminder of this ground-breaking group of Canadian artists, who first rose to prominence in the 1920s (although several painted well after this period), prompted me to refresh my knowledge of an amazing band of painters who are not well-known to many people here in the U.S., but who collectively serve as a cultural touchstone for Canadians, as indicated by the above quote from the story I was reading.

Lawren Harris, Clouds, Lake Superior

The members of the group initially consisted of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson,  Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley.  Frank Johnston left the group in 1926 and A.J. Casson was invited to take his place.  In addition, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr are also closely associated with the principal seven, and Thomson, in particular, was very influential even though his passing in 1917 preceded the group’s most prolific period.  It’s fair to say that their collective focus on the Canadian landscape helped define in the popular imagination the majesty of Canada’s vast natural treasures.

Frederick Varley, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay

Their work reminds me of the more loosely defined California School of American landscapists, whose many paintings of the American West during the first half of the Twentieth Century exhibit a subject matter and color palette remarkably similar to that of the Group of Seven.  Both groups were obviously borrowing from and re-interpreting the approaches developed by the French Impressionists several decades earlier, and the Group of Seven evolved to adopt the vivid colors of Post-Impressionism and the simplified forms of abstraction of Art Nouveau.  While other points of commonality can be found between the work of these artists and others here in the States (for instance, Lawren Harris’s spare abstracted landscapes bear a striking resemblance to some of Georgia O’Keeffe’s pieces), even if one does not recognize these connections there is much to appreciate in the Group’s representations of Canada’s diverse geography.

A.J. Casson, Rapids

As a whole the Group of Seven were prolific and their paintings and other works are held in many Canadian and other museums and collections.  There are also several useful websites devoted to the Group with rich resources available for further exploration.  Most notably, perhaps, is the site for Ontario’s McMichael Canadian Art Collection / Gallery (http://www.mcmichael.com/collection/seven/index.cfm), which houses one of the largest collections of the Group’s works.  The CBC has a wonderful set of digital archives (http://archives.cbc.ca/arts_entertainment/visual_arts/topics/754/) featuring video and audio on various aspects of the work of the Group, including rare interviews and footage of some of the artists themselves.

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