The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson
The Toronto-based Group of Seven held their first exhibition in 1920 with the intention of promoting a uniquely Canadian art through subject matter and innovation in style. The original seven members – J.E.H. MacDonald, Lawren S. Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank H. Johnston, and Franklin Carmichael – would later be joined by three additional artists who were invited to become part of the Group prior to its evolvement into the Canadian Group of Painters in 1933. Johnston left after the first Group show and was replaced by A.J. Casson, followed by the inclusion of Edwin Holgate from Montreal and L.L. FitzGerald from Winnipeg. Tom Thomson was a close associate of the original seven artists. His name has become synonymous with the Group although he could not become a member due to his sudden and premature death in 1917, only three years prior to the Group’s formation.
Since their inception, the Group of Seven and Thomson gradually became the
predominant national school of Canadian art embracing the modern era in art of the
early part of the twentieth century. The artists largely focused on representing the
Canadian landscape as a symbol of national pride and cultural identity. The Canadian
land also provided the means by which to experiment in techniques and create a new
formal language that would be distinctively Canadian.
Image: Tom Thomson (1877 - 1917), Autumn Birches, 1916, oil on panel, 21.6 x 26.7 cm, Gift of Mrs. H.P. de Pencier, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1966.2.3
A selection of works by the Group of Seven that provides an overview of their travels travels to Western Canada and the Arctic.
"Art movements come and go. When one becomes stabilized it is by-passed by younger and more vigorous groups. In some cases new movements work a revolution in art, as did the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Others are important only to the countries that gave them birth.
The Group of Seven ranks with such local movements. It is hard now to believe that years ago we who were members of it were regarded as radicals. We were revolutionaries only in that we expected an art movement to develop in our country at a time when most Canadians were indifferent to any form of art, and because we attempted to paint objectively the kind of country that comprises most of Canada. The majority of Canadians, were shocked by our efforts, yet we did create something in the field of painting that was distinctively our own." –A.Y. Jackson
Image: A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974), Road to Baie St. Paul, 1933, oil on canvas, 64.4 x 82.2 cm, Purchase 1968 with funds donated by C.A.G. Matthews, 1968.20
The story of the canoe is Canada’s story, …Canada is a gigantic waterway, a complex system of lakes and rivers stretching from the Atlantic to the Rockies… In the canoe’s wake the economy and the culture of Canada appeared. There is one man in a canoe that I have especially in mind …– Tom Thomson. Of Thomson it may literally be said that he lived and worked and died in a canoe in Canada’s north country. The very waters in which he drowned are known as Canoe Lake.
But it is more important that he alone was able to express the feelings, the deep faith in nature, the wild, mute emotions of all the strong men in canoes who created this country. …Tom Thomson painted Canada not only as it looked to him but as it must have looked to his kind of man from the beginning.
Roy Atherton, 1947
These statements were made by Alfred (Roy) Atherton, the first American Ambassador to Canada, three decades after the death of Tom Thomson. His comments position the artist within a master narrative of Canada’s development as a country linking an idealized view of the man, his work and lifestyle to the symbol of the canoe and the significance of its economic role in the stimulation of exploration and geographical expansion of this country’s boundaries.
Atherton’s description of Thomson elevates him to the level of a ‘representative character’. The artist has been contextualized within a masculine, mythologizing framework that ascribes heroic qualities. He is presented as a solitary, artistic male visionary who explored the northern Canadian wilderness and produced images that provided a singular and profound expression of nature that speaks for all of the heroic (male) individuals who contributed to the early formation of this nation.
The elements for mythmaking pertaining to Thomson were in place before his death. The recognition by some of the exponential growth of his painterly skills and the intensity of his commitment to his vision of the North provided the foundation for the enduring view that emerged after Thomson’s death in which it was believed that an exceptional artist was lost to this country while in his prime. His sudden death overshadowed by speculation regarding the mysterious circumstances of his demise and coupled with the efforts of those who knew him including the members of the Group of Seven to shape perceptions of his role within Canadian art contributed to the range of stories that emerged in the decades following his passing. Thomson’s presence in the Canadian imagination continues to the present time in exhibitions, and literature, as well as in music and film.
Tom Thomson (1877 - 1917), Tamaracks, 1915, oil on wood panel, 21.3 x 26.7 cm (8 3/8 x 10 1/2 in.), Gift of Mr. R.A. Laidlaw, 1968.12
Dialogue and Divergence: Art of the Northwest Coast
Dialogue and Divergence: Art of the Northwest Coast explores relationships between First Nations and non-First Nations cultures of British Columbia. The exhibition makes this history the basis for engaging the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s holdings.
The project is organised into four thematic areas that present different aspects of cultural production. Emily Carr and First Nations Imagery and Beautiful British Columbia: Marketing the Coast through First Nations Culture address the use of First Nations imagery both in the popular culture of tourism and in the work of modern painters, engaging ideas of dialogue and appropriation. Works by Emily Carr depicting First Nations settlements and monumental carvings, the argillite poles of the Haida master carver Charles Edenshaw, and mass-produced tourist material featuring First Nations and pseudo-First Nations imagery emphasise an awkwardly shared space of exchange, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation. Within the sections titled Masks of the North.
Image: Emily Carr (1871 - 1945), Old Tree at Dusk, 1932
oil on canvas, 112 x 68.5 cm, Gift of Colonel R.S. McLaughlin, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
The traditional Inuit …established a clear distinction between themselves, the “persons” (this is what the word “Inuit means)and the other …creatures with which they were in contact: the spirits (tuurngait, ijiqqat, etc.), the Indians (allait or itqilgit), the Europeans (qallunaat, etc.) (Dorais 1988)
Many Inuit artists have used their art to reflect on their cultural experiences by providing visual narratives that describe the challenges of living and surviving in the North. This current selection of works reveals not only aspects of the material culture related to the traditional life of the Inuit, but also the spiritual relationship that the people maintain with their environment through their stories and legends.
Stories can define a place and people. They provide the “social memory” associated with a place and offer a sense of collective experience. Stories mythologize a region while shaping an awareness of the cultural identity which helps to bind a people. The historic values of the Inuit as well as their beliefs about the land and their relationship to nature are revealed in their traditional stories which focus on cultural heroes, the role of the shaman, and tales of Sedna and other spirits.
Image: Joe Talirunili, (1893?–1976) The Migration, 1976, stone and sealskin with wood,
Overall: 32.5 x 42 x 23 cm, Purchase 1980
Pluralities/Polarities 1950 to 2000
The exhibition focuses on the latter half of the twentieth century that saw remarkable developments in Canadian artistic expression. Amongst the diverse styles and attitudes, in general, two major streams of thought appear in the exhibition: the abstractionists (including abstract expressionists and other non-representational artists) and the realists. In their diversity, the artists each contributed to the dynamic and mosaic-like portrait of Canadian art that emerged in this explosive period of national and cultural creativity. Pluralities/Polarities 1950-2000 is curated by Sharona Adamowicz-Clements and is part of the McMichael’s ongoing interpretation of the permanent collection that includes installing rarely seen works.
Image: Jean Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), Sur les traces, 1958, oil paint on canvas, 65 x 81.3 cm, Gift from Mr. & Mrs. L.L. Odette, Toronto, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1994.19
Female imagery has had a distinct place in the history of Western art, including modern
Canadian art. Women have appeared in portraiture, religious or mythological narratives, genre painting, and nudes. Some artists depicted women as mere objects of beauty for the consumption of the male gaze, whereas others have represented them as a subject in their own right.
This installation presents women as artistic inspiration in the works of members of the
Group of Seven, their contemporaries, and other Canadian artists, both male and female, from the permanent holdings of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. It considers how these artists, working primarily in central Canada from the early to the mid-twentieth century, have approached women in their respective works. Their treatment of women, formally and conceptually, proves to be as diverse as the many images women have come to represent over the course of the development of modern art, coinciding with contemporary feminist movements and changing views of the female gender.
Contemplating Women is organized around four themes: portraits, women in society,
motherhood, and the female figure. In the portraits, the woman engages the viewer
through her personality. Her pose, physical attributes, and facial expression reveal the
psychological reality of the sitter. Identity is further explored in the second group of
works: these images describe the woman’s social role or class through her occupation,
attire, and surroundings. She may appear in a professional setting or at home, at work,
or at play. The third group of works examines motherhood. The depiction of the intimate bond between mother and child is a long-standing tradition that reveals general views about the idealization of maternal devotion. In the last set of works, the female figure is the focus of attention. The modern nude may be a formalist study of the body, an icon of feminine beauty and eroticism, or a contemplative metaphor for human vulnerability and frailty.
In their varied representations, women had an important role to play in the development of mainstream Canadian art, challenging the ever-changing notions of femininity and woman as artistic muse.
Image: R.S. Hewton (1888 - 1960), Benedicta, c. 1931, oil on canvas, 183 x 121 cm, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H.J. Campbell, 1969.25.6
Legends: Norval Morrisseau and Anishinabek "Woodland School" Artists
First Nations artist Norval Morrisseau is celebrated for establishing a style of art that became known as the Woodland School. Morrisseau’s decision to produce his art on canvas and paper marked a shift to European-influenced traditions. His painted compositions are characterized by an intuitive use of bright, pure colour shapes contained within black form lines; a deliberate attempt to communicate his beliefs with the viewer using colour. At the same time, other First Nations artists were similarly motivated in their desire to communicate the values of their culture, and subsequent generations of artists continue to do so through the creation of unique and significant art forms.
Image: Norval Morrisseau (1931-2007), Shaman and Disciples, 1979, acrylic on canvas
180.5 x 211.5 cm, Purchase 1979, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 1979.34.7
The Founders' Story
A Tribute to the Legacy of Robert and Signe McMichael
Don’t miss this display of archival photographs and accompanying texts recounting the history of the McMichael from its early beginnings in the home of Robert and Signe McMichael through the donation to the Province in 1965, until the Founders’ retirement in 1981.
Learn more about our Founders’ passion for collecting and their mutual vision – a vision that enabled the creation of a unique public art gallery, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
To view The Founders’ Story visit the ramp leading from Gallery 1 to the restaurant.
Image: Robert McMichael signing the Gift Agreement, with Premier John Robarts and Signe McMichael, November 18th, 1965, Photo by the Ontario Department of Tourism and Information