Tom Thomson stands as the most important artist in Canadian history. A forerunner of the Group of Seven, Thomson crated paintings that shaped the way Canadian view their land.
Although he died before he was forty, Thomson's compelling works ignited a powerful national art movement and created lasting icons for a young country. His mysterious death continues to stir speculation and spin off theories but he emotional response to his paintings is stronger than ever.
This illustrated introduction to Thomson will provide all the background and insight readers need to appreciate his work. Sections include: Thomson's childhood on a farm near Owen Sound; and his early years; his career as a commercial artist; the influence of Lawren Harris and J.E.H. Macdonald; his increasing fame as an artist; his discovery of Algonquin Park and the mystery surrounding his death.
David Silcox, Managing Director of Sotheby's Canada, is an art historian, a cultural administrator and a Senior Fellow at Massey College. He has held cultural portfolios at all levels of government and is noted for his work on the painters David B. Milne, Christopher Pratt and Jack Bush.
Tom Thomson is a Canadian hero, undisputed. His stature in the history of Canadian art, his role in giving the nation a sense of identity, his well known, evocative images, all contribute to the legend of this man who created lasting work during a short life.
Thomson's reputation is due to two things which are somewhat at odds with each other: his art and his untimely death. His art is glorious, although his productive years were few, less than five really, and the number of works not large -- only about twenty canvases and less than three hundred small oil sketches -- a fraction of what might have been.
His death occurred during the horror of the First World War. Although his drowning in Canoe Lake was probably a simple accident, no one wanted to believe that someone who promised so much could be taken away so casually. Lawren Harris and others suspected foul play. Despite the war, Thomson's death precipitated what became over the years, a national fixation. Books about his life and untimely death sanctified him. His habits and skills were exaggerated, his relatively modest ways were magnified. He became a hero of mythic proportions, a pathfinder who, it was claimed, led Canada's imagination out of colonial servitude and into modern nationhood.
Thomson's reputation was based upon enough achievement, ability, and personality to trigger this adulation, however swollen it became with time. People interpreted his love of wilderness camping into a declaration that he was a conservationist, whereas he was excited by the lumber business. He was described in admiring phrases as an intrepid and almost superhuman canoeist and bush traveller, yet he had capsized more than once, having learned to canoe barely five years before he drowned.
In all the writing about him his art was mentioned only briefly. Sixty years after his death, only a score of his paintings had been reproduced in colour. The charm, power, and wonder of his artistic achievement was finally revealed in 1977 in Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm, a book in which the late Harold Town and I reproduced 177 works in colour, 148 of them for the first time, and many to the size of the page-size panels Thomson used.
Thomson is Canada's best-known artist and in many ways the best. His colleagues, who formed the Group of Seven after his death, had greater skills in many aspects of painting. Yet Thomson's intuitive grip on the spirit of place, his original palette, and his driving expression, put him in a class all by himself.
One: The Beginnings
Two: The Formative Years
Three: The Fertile Years
Four: The Man and the Myth
Sources and Further Reading