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When I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, my classrooms had a view of craggy rocks and spindly, wind ravaged pine trees. I’d stare at this rugged landscape for hours. Then I might look out the window. The Canadian topography I contemplated on those boring afternoons, just before school let out for the summer, were prints of iconic paintings by the Group of Seven. White Pine, by A.J. Casson, was a favourite. What was outside the classroom window? Toronto’s neatly mowed lawns and tidy sidewalks, not nearly as fascinating for a young, dreaming mind.
Having been born in Northern Ontario, the Group of Seven’s paintings rang true to me. These artists knew how to capture the astonishing, wild beauty of the Canadian Shield, roaring waterfalls, still lakes and dense forests. On adventures in the north, I had seen trees, rocks and water that looked just like the ones they had painted.
Later, the paintings became part of my art history lessons. Our family outings often included trips to art galleries to gaze at these flowing interpretations of Canada’s wilderness. Naming the seven members of the group was almost like knowing your ABCs – J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frank Johnston, Frederick Varley, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and Franklin Carmichael. Then there were other painters who were not members but whose work was associated with the Group of Seven – Tom Thomson and Emily Carr.
The Canadian Encyclopedia is a good place to dig for facts about these iconic creators who met between 1911 and 1913 in Toronto. Aside from Harris, who was independently wealthy, they made their living as commercial artists. Harris lived life large as heir to the Massey-Harris farm machinery fortune, and creating art was his passion. He and his friend ophthalmologist James MacCallum built a studio in Toronto’s Rosedale ravine where the artists could meet and paint. They wanted nothing to do with the dull, conservative styles of the time and raised hackles by proclaiming themselves Canada’s national school of painters. Picking up from post-impressionist artists such as Edvard Munch and Paul Gaugin, the group’s style was full of emotion and spirit, bold patterns and bright colours.
Their first exhibition was at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1920. Although much of the artistic establishment thought their work was rubbish, Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, was a champion and made sure they were well represented at a prestigious British exhibition where they received favourable reviews.
If it were not for his untimely death in 1917, Tom Thomson might have made it the Group of Eight. Thomson worked as a graphic artist with some of the other members and as an outdoorsman and artist, he greatly influenced their work. He died while canoeing in Algonquin Park and the circumstances remain a mystery to this day.
As for the number seven, that eventually became moot. Frank Johnston left the group in 1921 and was replaced by A.J. Casson. Two other painters, Edwin Holgate and LeMoine Fitzgerald also joined before the group disbanded in 1931. By that time, each of the members was well enough known to continue on his own and several joined a new group in 1933 called the Canadian Group of Painters with Lawren Harris at the helm as president.
Although she was not a member of the Group of Seven, Emily Carr was respected by them and her art was just as ground breaking. She was one of the only prominent female artists in North America during this period. Based in Victoria, B.C., she was fascinated by indigenous culture and her work depicts the art of West Coast First Nations including Haida, Gitksan and Tsimchian. In 1927, when the National Gallery of Canada invited her to take part in a West Coast Aboriginal Art exhibit, she met Lawren Harris who became her mentor. She continued to paint until 1941 when declining health led her to pick up a pen and produce five books of short stories based on her experiences with First Nation peoples.
The Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa have extensive collections, but one of the best places to see paintings by the Group of Seven and contemporaries such as Tom Thomson and Emily Carr is the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg, Ont., just outside Toronto. The gallery owns 6,400 works including art by Inuit, Métis and First Nations artists. As well as the gallery, the 100-acre property has a sculpture garden, the Tom Thomson shack and a cemetery where six Group of Seven members are buried.
For more information: group-of-seven.org / thecanadianencyclopedia.ca
The Group of Seven Guitar Project
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection commissioned seven world-renowned Canadian guitar makers to create eight masterwork guitars as homage to a Group of Seven member and Tom Thomson. Now until Oct. 29th, you can walk around and explore the instruments’ various landscapes in wood and inlay, watch a documentary film on the making of each guitar, and view inspirational paintings by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. A series of Acoustic Conversations features the luthiers and live performances by accomplished players including Chris Hadfield, Jesse Cook, and Don Ross.
For the schedule, go to mcmichael.com.