Tom Thomson: A Canadian Artist Who Helped to Define a Nation

I picked up this book at the Trading Post at the French River.   It seemed like the perfect place to learn about Tom Thomson’s life as an artist.  He painted at Georgian Bay (where the French River is located) and canoed the French River on his way to Algonquin Park.

Tom Thomson

I love this picture of Tom Thomson.  Head bent over his fishing tackle, he looks so unpretentious and down to earth.  He loved the outdoors and was a great fisherman and canoer.  It was nothing for him to take trips alone in his canoe for months at a time in order to paint. In this way, he lived a simple life uncomplicated by marriage and known to loan money to friends in need.  He was also prone to anger when his painting wasn’t going well.  He’d threaten to quit, but always came back to it.

I was first introduced to the work of Tom Thomson when I worked at the library many years ago.  An art book of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson came across the desk one day, and I got caught up in the paintings of the wild Canadian landscape.

At the time of my discovery, I knew little about art, but Thomson’s work stood apart from the rest.  The bold use of colours, the thick texture of paint on the canvas moved me in ways that I can’t explain.  It was like I was being called home.  It all looked so big and wild, untamed and dangerous. It called to me then and it still does.

Tom Thomson

Thomson came to painting late in his life. By the time he was thirty five, when he turned to painting full-time, he had already taken courses at a business college, apprenticed at an iron foundry, worked as an engraver, and as a graphic designer at the Grip Ltd.  It is at the latter where he met the men who would become his mentors in art and future members of the Group of Seven.  Unlike other members of the group, Thomson never had any formal art training and was therefore, happy to take direction from his friends.  They, in turn, learned how to survive in the North Country from the more experienced Tom.

The Pool

It saddens me that Thomson drowned at Canoe Lake at the height of his talents at age thirty nine.  How could such an experienced outdoorsman and canoer have come to his death doing something he had done his whole life?  There are many theories surrounding his death, none of which have been proven.  Perhaps part of the myth of Thomson is in the mysterious way in which he died.  But we cannot forget the incredible body of work that he left behind in the five year period he did paint.
He may not have lived a long life or accomplished what most men accomplish during their lifetime:  marriage, children, and financial success.  But he did manage to become an icon, a myth, and a remarkable painter who, through his art, helped to define a nation.

West Wind

For more information about Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, check out:  Tom Thomson, Artist of the North by Wayne Larsen; The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson by David P. Silcox; and Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution by Ross King.

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