Canadian Art: Group of Seven
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Tom Thomson

A.Y. Jackson

Lawren Harris

Fred Varley

Arthur Lismer


Books on the Group of Seven

The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson
by David P. Silcox

Group of Seven in Western Canada
by Cathy Mastin

The Best of the Group of Seven
by Joan Murray

The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson: An Introduction
by Anne Newlands

The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation
by Charles C. Hill

Flowers: J.E.H. Macdonald, Tom Thomson
and the Group of Seven

by Joan Murray


Group of Seven

Text by Dale Smith, reproduced here with permission of the author.

Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven

The period of Canadian art from 1910 to 1933 can best be summed up by the word, "grim." In part, the problem was Canada's colonial mentality, which assumed that anything European was automatically superior to anything Canadian. An old lady once told one of the Group of Seven members, "It's bad enough to have to live in this country, without having pictures of it in your home." As a consequence, in 1924, only 2% of the paintings sold in Canada were by Canadian artists, and the patrons of Montreal bragged that more Dutch paintings were sold in their city than in any other city in North America.

A second problem was that the art establishment and the buying public tended to be extremely conservative. When the National Gallery of Canada bought Arthur Lismer's September Gale in 1926, there were public meetings in Ottawa to protest the purchase of "the greatest abortion of a work of art ever seen in our fair city," and as always, there were protests against the use of public funds to acquire "hideous, freakish and unnatural paintings by artistic perverts." If the criticism seems a bit harsh, it could be expected from critics and public who expected to see misty representations of the Dutch countryside that appeared to come from the easels of the European academies.

The future members of the Group of Seven refused to accept that European art was innately superior to Canadian art. They were part of the Canada First movement, and they insisted that Canadian artists should break away from the old European styles and paint their new country in a new way.

Based on the critics' attacks, one might think that the young Canadians were wild-eyed revolutionaries out on the cutting edge of world art. This was hardly the case. During their developmental, they were using the devices of late 19th century art, at a time when the European avant-garde was dominated by the Fauves, Expressionists, Cubists, and others.

Based on the patriotic statements of the painters themselves, one might think that they were working in a uniquely Canadian way. However, that was also not the case.

At the same time that the Group was insisting that Canadian artists free themselves from European influences, they were being strongly influenced by the late 19th century European styles. Lismer and most of the others went through an early Impressionist phase in which their flicking brushstrokes tried to capture shifting light and colour. However, it didn't last very long, because as AY Jackson noted Impressionism "was too involved a technique to express the movement and complex character of our northern wild," and over time they switched to the bolder colours and brushstrokes of Post-Impressionism and then Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau rejected the careful shading and detailed drawing of the academics and used simplified forms that were based on plant forms, and flat, bright colours. Of major importance to the young Canadians was the fact that the Art Nouveau artist/designers believed that art should be a part of everyday life, so they worked in both fine and commercial art. Tom Thomson and five of the original seven members of the Group of Seven all worked as commercial artists, and they used Art Nouveau every day in their work. It was only natural that it should carry over into their fine art.

The elements of Art Nouveau was strongly reinforced in 1913, when some of the Group went to Buffalo, New York to see a show of Scandinavian painters. Many of the Scandinavians were painting landscapes in the flat colours, organic shapes and curving, vine-like lines of Art Nouveau. It was a critical moment in the development of the Group's painting, because it showed them how they could apply their commercial art training to landscape, and how they could capture the Canadian landscape in a new way.

In 1917, a few years after the Scandinavian exhibit, Tom Thomson painted one of his most famous pictures, The West Wind. While he and the future members of the Group denied any foreign influences and insisted that they were reacting to their national landscape in a completely unique way, the tree's similarity to the clumped shapes and whiplash lines of Art Nouveau is more than striking.

However, if the Group were using some of the more modern European styles, their subject matter was uniquely Canadian.

The art establishment refused to accept that the Canadian landscape was a fit subject for art: "England and Holland have such lovely atmospheric effects, while in Canada, the sun was too bright and the colours were too harsh to be a fit subject for painting." A few artists had painted downtown Toronto or charming Quebec villages, but the Canada First artists began to paint the wilderness of the Canadian Shield. Today, Harris' representation of a Beaver Swamp in Algoma may be perfectly innocuous, but in 1920, it bordered on the subversive. One businessman wanted assurances from the government that such pictures would not be shown abroad, as they would have an adverse effect on immigration.

To capture the spirit of the northern wilds, the artists travelled into the wilderness by train, canoe, and on foot, and made sketches on wooden panels. The panels were always 8 ½ inches by 10 inches, so they would slide into a specially built box for easy transportation out of the bush. In the winter, they returned to their studios in Toronto and work the most promising of the panels into finished paintings.

Art historians have pointed out that the seven artists tended to ignore good reviews and revel in the bad ones. However, there is no question that they were frequently the targets of the critics and in 1920, they formed the Group of Seven. Like the French Impressionists, it was a matter mutual defence. Many critics were extremely hostile, sales were slow, and by joining together, they could form a united front, and more importantly, they could organize their own art shows when they were refused entry into the official academic exhibitions. During the next 13 years, the Group of Seven were constantly in the press, rebutting the critics, raising Canadian's awareness of the beauty of their country, and insisting that the Canadians support Canadian art.

The original members were:

(Tom Thomson was not one of the Seven, as he had drowned in a canoeing accident in 1917.)

During its existence, the membership of the Group was in constant change. Frank Johnston left after the first exhibit, and new members such as A.J. Casson joining in the coming years. They were in effect, The Group of Seven, The Group of Six and the Group of Eight at various times. In addition to the members, they were always ready to invite non-members to participate in their shows. The guest artists didn't have to be landscape painters, as long as they were adding a new dimension to Canadian art. It's worthwhile to note that many of the invitées included women, such as Emily Carr, which was unusual at the time.

In 1933 the Group was dissolved and reformed into the larger Canadian Group of Painters, but across much of Canada, or at least, across English speaking Canada, people still consider the Group of Seven to be their national school.


Tom Thomson

Tom Thomson was largely untrained in painting, but in 1901, he had studied lettering and design in Seattle, Washington, and then worked at photo-engraving and commercial artwork for various area firms. On his return to Canada, he began to work in a commercial art studio in Toronto doing the lettering on graphic art. Many of the other men in the studio had studied in the academies of Europe, and in his early 30's, Thomson took up painting. On his holidays, he travelled with them to the wilderness of Algonquin Park, and he was like a sponge, absorbing everything he could learn from them.

By 1915, he was painting major works such as his Northern River, which now hangs in the National Gallery of Canada. The influence of Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and the work of the future members of the Group of Seven are evident in his work, but Thomson's natural talent made him a dominant figure in early 20th century Canadian art.

In 1917, Thomson painted what is probably the most famous of all Canadian images, a pine tree, standing battered but strong against the elements. For many, the painting is the quintessential image of the Canadian spirit. The picture vibrates with colour. Presumably lakes and the sky are blue, but his picture is pink, violet, green. And to make the colours even more vibrant through complimentary contrast, he allowed spots of the red under-painting to show through.

Unfortunately, Thomson's career was cut short in 1917, when he was drowned at the age of 39 in a canoeing accident. His impact on the future members of the Group of Seven and on Canadian art in general was out of all proportion to the few years that he was at work.

Tom Thomson images:

A.Y. Jackson

A.Y. Jackson was a driving force of the Group of Seven and it was pure luck that he ever became a member. Jackson's hometown was Montreal, not Toronto. After a few years study in Paris, he returned home in 1910, and painted Edge of the Maple Wood, which shows the influence of French Impressionism.

In 1911, he sent it to a show in Toronto, and when the future members of the Group saw it, their eyes were opened to the fact that Canadian landscape was a fit subject for art. The composition had a particular impact on Thomson. Throughout his brief career, he would often use shadows coming from behind the viewer, in order to make them feel part of the picture.

Even more importantly, Lawren Harris, another founding member of the Group liked it so much that he bought it. That support was enough to get Jackson to move down to Toronto, and later join the Group.

Terre Sauvage, the Wild Land, was the first picture that we know Jackson painted after he moved to Toronto. The impact of the Scandinavian show in Buffalo and the work of the other members of the Group replaced the soft Impressionist brushwork of the Maple Wood, with the bolder Art Nouveau forms.

During World War I, Jackson was a war artist with the Canadian government. His scenes of the Western Front used the colours and shapes of Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau, and they have the same swelling shapes and flowing lines as the rocks of Terre Sauvage.

By the early 1920s, Jackson had stripped the landscape down to its bare essentials, possibly as a result of working closely with Lawren Harris.

The painting, Les Eboulements, Québec was very typical of Jackson's work for almost the last 50 years of his life. From the early 1920, until his death in the 1970s, he painted the countryside in Québec, Ontario, the West, and the Far North, using the same basic formula over and over again in his work.

A.Y. Jackson images:

Lawren Harris

The story of Lawren Harris' development is very different from that of Jackson. While Jackson's work was produced under the same basic formula for 50 years, Lawren Harris' work changed completely between 1910 and 1935.

As a young man, he had studied in an academy in Germany, and after his return, his paintings like Hurdy Gurdy were very much in the Impressionist manner.

By 1919, the delicate pastels of Impressionism were replaced in pictures such as Return from Church, by the thick primary colours and heavy brushstrokes of Post-Impressionism, and after that the change was even more rapid and dramatic.

Within a few years, the rich, Post-Impressionism colours had in turn given way to more muted tones, while objects were reduced to simplified shapes and swelling lines, which are somewhat similar to Jackson's work at his time.

However, he would soon move to a stark severity of colour and a simplicity of form, which is far more extreme than anything Jackson would ever do. Harris turned to Theosophy as it was espoused by Kandinsky and light became more and more important in the pictures.

Kandinsky in his book Towards the Spiritual in Art, set forth the idea that the world we see around us is merely a shadow of the true universe. If you dig down through the outward appearance of things, you will pass into deeper and deeper levels of reality until you find God. In keeping with that tenet, Harris pared away the details of things in a search for the underlying essentials of creation. By the mid-30s, he had moved into total non-objective abstraction.

On an economic note, the move to non-objective subject matter completely cut off Harris from the buying public, and he didn't sell a single non-objective painting to a public gallery until 1969. Fortunately, his economic well-being was not dependent on the sale of his paintings. Harris was one of the beneficiaries of the Massey-Harris farm machinery fortune. (On the Massey side were a Governor General of Canada, Vincent Massey, and a Hollywood film star, Raymond Massey.)

Ironically, part of the problem was that Group of Seven style landscapes had become the new establishment and everyone wanted landscapes by A.Y. Jackson, not Harris' geometry.

Lawren Harris images:

Fred Varley

Fred Varley was born in England and was deeply in love with his adopted country. Like so many other founding members of the Group, he worked as a commercial artist before the Great War. During the war, he was a war artist for the Canadian Government.

The Canadian landscape was almost the sole subject of the other members of the Group, and Varley's inclusion showed how the Group's aims went beyond depicting the Canadian landscape. They wanted a new Canadian art - not a new Canadian landscape art, and Varley became a member of the Group because he wasn't willing to paint in the old academic style.

Varley was a portrait and figure painter, not a landscape artist, and Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, was the only true landscape he painted before 1926. Following his move to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1926, he began to immerse himself in landscape painting, but the pictures were a sharp departure from the "style" of the Group.

In the early 20s, Varley made a poor living as a portraitist. They are first-rate paintings, but they just weren't conventional enough for the taste of the wealthy patrons of the day. Nor did he have the type of personality to flatter them.

Bankers wanted to be shown staring down their noses at any potential loan applicants, and the ladies wanted to be covered in lots of jewels and fur. But Varley was far too cranky to smooze the high society sitters. If the pose or the costume they were wearing wasn't what he wanted, he told them so. As a result, he didn't get enough portrait commissions to live on and in 1926 he moved to Vancouver where he taught at the Vancouver School of Art in British Columbia.

From the day he arrived on the Pacific Coast, the scenery overwhelmed him, and he began to paint pure landscapes, something that he hadn't done in Ontario. He also became interested in the art and philosophy of the Orient, and in paintings like Dawn from 1929, he was strongly influenced by Chinese brush painting. He dropped the hard jabbing brush strokes of Stormy Weather, and the colours and brush strokes flow together like a Chinese watercolour.

However, he continued to paint portraits, and in the painting of Vera from 1930, he introduced green hues to show the model's "spiritual nature." He sent it east and it won first prize in the Governor General's art show, but at the Group of Seven show of the same year, the critics commented on its "sickly colours, which remind one of cheap candies."

While some of the other Group artists were starting to sell their landscapes by the 30's, Varley, like Harris, wasn't painting Group of Seven landscapes anymore, and he suffered severe economic problems right through the thirties and forties. Fortunately, he was to receive the recognition he deserved before his death in 1969.

Fred Varley images:

Arthur Lismer

Like Varley, Lismer came from England. He was the teacher of the Group, at first from necessity in Halifax and then later with growing commitment to the children in his art classes at the Art Gallery of Ontario. His understanding of the ideas of William Morris, a precursor of the Art Nouveau movement led him to articulate a holistic vision of art as permeating all aspects of life and having a profoundly constructive influence in society.

By 1913, he was working in the commercial studio with Thomson and many of the future members of the Group. They went on sketching trips, which were then worked up into canvases in their studios.

Varley's The Guide's Home, Alqonquin of 1913 shows the Impressionists' concern with light, but by 1915 he was clearly under the influence of Thomson and his picture has the tentative brushwork of the Post-Impressionists.

During the war, he was another of the Group to become an official war artist for the Canadian government. His un-academic style was not always welcomed, as modern art took on an increasingly menacing character in the eyes of some writers. Ahrens in an attack on Lismer, MacDonald, Thomson and Harris, wrote in the Toronto Daily Star that , "All these new schools, so-called, had their beginnings in France … With France these experiments were legitimate but France knew where to begin and where to stop … but the so-called new art has no excuse, and bespeaks only of a hermaphroditic condition of mind and an absolute lack of the knowledge of drawing, colour, and design. I feel that these young persons who are indulging in these pastimes would gain a much higher standing before men if they gave their now misspent efforts to the destruction of the Hun."

After the War, Lismer's painting took on the Art Nouveau shapes of Thomson, and when he and Varley painted the same September Gale on Georgian Bay, his picture showed a much tighter style than the free brush stroke of Varley.

In 1924-5 Lismer, and two other members of the Group of Seven were teaching at the Ontario College of Art. In an address to the Canadian Club, Lismer argued that Canadian art must reveal the national environment and national types who have been moulded by it. "Commonplace picturesqueness disappears in the north country and is replaced by epochal and powerfully moving shapes. Conventional paintings, easy atmospheric effects, tepid and non-committal attack has, perforce, to be discarded… … older theories and rules to a great extent must be discarded and a return made to the simpler forms and distinctive design common before the decay of the painters' craft into an exhibition of skill of the hand. There had to be a firm grasping of the design and rhythm of mountain and stream… the Group of Seven have moved the art of landscape painting into a more rhythmic and plastic idiom, more in harmony with the energy and quality of our national character."

Arthur Lismer images:

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