Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

The Group of Seven
Introduction

Back to Realism / Naturalism

 
Introduction
Carmichael Harris Jackson Johnston Lismer
MacDonald Varley Casson FitzGerald Holgate
Tom Thomson (on this page)

The Group of Seven was an early 20th-century nationalist art group whose members set out to create a distinctly Canadian art that reflected the character of the land and the people. It would be hard to find a Canadian who has not been moved by the group's works.  Their paintings -- displayed in galleries across the country -- capture a feeling for the sublime mystery of the Canadian landscape, which is the physical and spiritual heritage of every Canadian.  

The painters who would form the Group of Seven first came together in Toronto, Ontario, in the years before World War I (1914-1918). Tom Thomson, another Toronto painter, also painted with them. Most of the painters first worked as commercial artists. On weekends and vacations they painted on the outskirts of Toronto and in sparsely populated areas of Ontario. However, the conservative and imitative European styles that dominated Canadian art frustrated them. They wanted to establish a bolder kind of painting that Canadians could call their own. 

The Group of Seven. Realism/Naturalism. Photo Gallery in the presentation booklet of stamps issued 1995. by Canada.

Seeking new methods to interpret new material, the artists found inspiration in the nationalist romantic art of Sweden and Norway. They first found the material at Algonquin Park, a vast wilderness preserve about 280 km (about 175 mi) north of Toronto. The painters asserted that the colour, atmosphere, and crudity of the sparsely inhabited northern landscape had a determining influence on the growth of a Canadian identity. They insisted that art had an essential role to play as Canada grew from a colony into a nation. 

In an excellent book published in 1996 by Charles C. Hill, "The Group of Seven, Art for a Nation", the publisher speaks of the early influence of "the Scandinavian model" on the founders of the group.  

Both Jefferys and fellow Toronto Art Students' League member C.M. Manly had for years encouraged Canadian artists to turn away from the depiction of Old World subjects and to look at their native land, 'teeming with splendid possibilities for the painter';  they saw in the work of Scandinavian painters a possible direction for artists here.  'Judged by their work they love their land and are putting forth notable expressions of it, in most courageous and original ways,' wrote Manly in 1905.  In a talk given at the Arts and Letters Club in November 1911, Jefferys summed up his perception of the recent tendencies in art as 'a tendency towards order and a tendency towards disturbance.  The one preserves, the other progresses.  The one is necessary for harmony, for beauty, for complete expression; the other for vigour, strength, creative power -- the thrill that makes art. To some -- artists as well as laymen -- art stands for a sort of sheltered garden, a sanctuary wherein to seek refuge from the work-a-day outside world, and forget for a time its crudeness and its cruelty ... But there are some turbulent souls whom this sheltered monastic life fails to satisfy.  They ... are interested in life as much as in art.  They regard art as a sort of militant order ... They are the experimenters of art, the questioners of life, and to them art must in the end, look for progress ... 

One feature which ... has immensely strengthened the militant group within recent years has been the emergence of what I may call the Racialists:  those painters whose work has been mainly inspired by their local environment and their racial temperament ... We have seen the rise of a group of most virile painters among the Scandinavian peoples ... Has the wave yet reached Canada?  In a new country like this, where life is crude, and regardless of little beyond material things, it is natural that the first conception of art should be that of the sheltered garden ... But we are too virile, too full of the exuberance, the rashness, the curiosity of youth, to linger there long, and already I fear, the disturbers are among us ...." 

Some 25 stamps showing paintings by the members of The Group of Seven have been issued over the years from the 1960s through the 1990s.  Below is a general presentation of the group, and by clicking on any of the links above you will be taken to pages displaying each of the artists' works on stamps, giving also short individual biographies.  Tom Thomson is found at the bottom of this page.  

Canada 1995. Group of Seven. Realism/Naturalism. Souvenir sheet #1 with paintings by the original members.

The members of the new movement were dispersed by World War I, and Thomson drowned in 1917. After the war, the remaining seven artists reunited in Toronto and extended their artistic exploration of the country to Algoma, north of Sault Sainte Marie in Ontario. In 1920 they formed the Group of Seven and held the first of what would be almost annual exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Winning an audience, the group exhibited their paintings across Canada and abroad. However, conservative critics and artists in Canada opposed both the paintings and the group’s aggressive self-promotion. This criticism initiated a wide public debate about Canadian art and Canada. 

Canada 1995. Group of Seven. Realism/Naturalism. Souvenir Sheet #2 with paintings by the original members.

The decorative character of their early paintings, such as Harris’s Winter Sunrise (1915, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan), was influenced by art nouveau graphics and Scandinavian painting. In the 1920s, austere color and simplified form became more prominent, as is evident in Harris’s Maligne Lake, Jasper Park (1924, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). The artists are best known for their depictions of uninhabited landscapes from Algoma, the north shore of Lake Superior, the Rocky Mountains, and the Arctic. However, individual members also painted the slums of Toronto and of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and villages in Québec, Ontario, the Arctic, and in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. Both Harris and Varley painted portraits. 

Canada 1995. Group of Seven. Souvenir Sheet #3 with paintings by new members.

The membership of the group changed over the years. Frank Johnston left in 1921, and A. J. Casson joined the group in 1926. Edwin Holgate of Montréal, Québec, was invited to join in 1929, as was LeMoine FitzGerald of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1932. Many other independent artists from across Canada, including Canada's first female painter Emily Carr,  exhibited with the Group of Seven. The art and ideas of the individual members greatly influenced artists such as Emily Carr and Carl Schaefer. In 1933 the group expanded into a national organization, the Canadian Group of Painters. 

In art historical context the original Group of Seven belongs to (North American) Realism, although most of the artists were essentially grounded in other styles, and later moved on to a more dramatic, expressionistic style. 

The achievement of the Group of Seven is put in focus by what Arthur Lismer said about Jackson's The Edge of the Maple Wood

"It created a feeling of settlement and permanency about a land of which my first impressions were impermanent and transient".  

Tom Thomson
(1877-1917) 

Born Thomas John Thomson near Claremont, Ontario, he grew up on a farm near Georgian Bay. He began working as a commercial artist in Seattle, Washington, in 1901, then moved to Toronto, Ontario, in 1905. Two years later he started working at the commercial art firm Grip Limited, where he met the painter J. E. H. MacDonald and other landscapists who would later form the Group of Seven. 

Thomson began to paint around 1910, and in 1912 he first visited Algonquin Park, a wilderness preserve in northern Ontario. The rugged landscapes of Algonquin Park were the subject of Thomson’s most famous paintings. 

Canada 1977. Group of Seven. Realism/Naturalism. Tom Thomson. April in Algonquin Park.

Canada 1977. Group of Seven. Realism/Naturalism. Tom Thomsen. Autumn Birches.

Thomson had no formal training as a painter, but he learned from his colleagues, MacDonald, A. Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, and finally Lawren Harris, who all went on to form the Group of Seven with other painters in 1920. In 1914 Thomson painted on Georgian Bay, and during the summers from 1915 to 1917 he worked at Algonquin Park as a fire ranger or fishing guide, making numerous sketches.  

The stamps were issued at the centenary of Thomson's birth anniversary.  They are se-tenant in the set, but digitally separated by the webmaster.  

Thomson first exhibited his paintings in 1913. Those early sketches, silhouetted shores across bodies of water, are restrained and muted in color. 

After 1914 Thomson used brighter colors and more expressive brushstrokes to enhance the simplest motifs -- shadows on snow, autumn foliage, and the aurora borealis (northern lights). 

These remain some of Thomson’s most brilliant paintings. In one of Thomson’s last canvases, The Jack Pine (1917, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario), the isolation of the solitary tree silhouetted against a distant horizon is highly symbolic. Jackson credited Thomson with discovering “a new world, the north country and a truer artist’s vision.”  

Canada 1990. Group of Seven. Realism/Naturalism. Tom Thomson. The Sest Wind.

Canada 1967. Group of Seven. Realism/Naturalism. Tom Thomson. The Jack Pine.

Thomson’s canvases, painted in Toronto in winter from sketches, and of which fewer than 50 exist, show fearless experimentation. Frequently a body of water and a far shore are glimpsed through a screen of trees or foliage, and trees are flattened in decorative arrangements. 

Thomson drowned at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in July 1917.  The accident remains a mystery, as he was very experienced in canoeing, having worked as a fishing guide in Algonquin Park.  Legend has it that he was murdered by a jealous colleague, but the case was never investigated, and the matter was shelved.  The official cause of death is and was that he drowned.  Thomson became a legendary figure in Canadian art, and his paintings are seen as central to the Canadian nationalist landscape art of the first half of the 20th century. 

Introduction
Carmichael Harris Jackson Johnston Lismer
MacDonald Varley Casson FitzGerald Holgate
Tom Thomson (on this page)

Sources and links: 

Other Realist artists on this site: 
 

Back to Realism / Naturalism


Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

Revised 24-jul-2006. Ann Mette Heindorff
Copyright © 1999-2007. All Rights Reserved

Homepage Heindorffhus