The Canadian painter Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was the forerunner of the Group of Seven, the national movement in landscape painting. He is best known as an interpreter of the Canadian wilderness.
Tom Thomson was born at Claremont, Ontario, not far from Toronto but was brought up at Leith on the shores of Georgian Bay. After an unpromising beginning as a machinist, he worked as a photoengraver in Seattle, Wash., from 1901 to 1904, when he returned to Canada. In 1907 Thomson joined the art department of Grip Limited in Toronto, where several of the men who after World War I formed the Group of Seven worked, among them J. E. H. MacDonal.
In 1911 Thomson made his first sketching trip by canoe into the Mississauga Forest Reserve with one of his fellow artists. The following year he went on a longer trip into Algonquin Park, a provincial forest with which his name has been linked ever since. When he returned to Toronto with a number of small oil sketches, he happened to drop in on his friend MacDonald when Dr. J. M. MacCallum was in the studio. The doctor, the friend and patron of the Group of Seven, was immediately impressed with Thomson, and when he later saw the sketches, he recognized their truthfulness in spite of their dark color and timid handling.
Thomson's first large canvas, based on one of these sketches, was A Northern Lake, which was exhibited in the Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1913 and was bought, much to the artist's surprise, by the Ontario government. Thereafter, with the backing of Dr. MacCallum, he dropped his career as a commercial artist and devoted himself to painting.
Each year, with growing mastery, Thomson charted the changing seasons in Algonquin Park with a steady stream of sketches, from dazzling impressions of sunlight on snow in March, the breakup of the ice in spring, the flaming sunsets and northern lights of summer, to the pageantry of autumn's reds and golds and the gathering snow clouds over the bleak November landscape. In winter he would return to his studio in Toronto to paint the large canvases for which he is best known. The flat pattern, swinging line, and rich texture of the larger pictures reflect the influence of the Art Nouveau style then in vogue; but in the original sketches the strong color, bold design, and rapid brushwork have a conviction and expressive force never equaled in paintings of the Canadian northland.
Tragedy struck in the summer of 1917. On July 8 Thomson set off for a day's fishing on Canoe Lake. His upturned canoe was found that evening; his body, with the legs tangled in a fishing line, a week later. The coroner recorded the death as accidental, but there are still those who suspect foul play.
The best-documented monograph on Thomson is Joan Murray, The Art of Tom Thomson (1971), published as an exhibition catalog by the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Murray, Joan, Tom Thomson: the last spring, Toronto; Niagara Falls, N.Y.: Dundurn Press, 1994.
Thomson, Tom, Tom Thomson, the silence and the storm, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977. □