Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven - Review

Today I saw Tom Thomson's plein air paintbox.  I was at Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven which finishes at the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Sunday 8th January before going on its European Tour.  There's a late night tomorrow night (5th January)

This is an exhibition about a group of painters who were all determined to show that it was possible to paint the Canadian landscape and do justice to some of the features which were regarded as unpaintable at the time.

I wrote about the exhibition back in October - 'Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven' at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  That post explained which the exhibition is so momentous and so I'm not going to repeat any of that in this post - save to say this is a once in a lifetime exhibition.

I'm not quite sure why it took me so long to get there, other than the fact that I always think I've got loads more time to see an exhibition plus it was at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which meant getting the satnav out!

Today at lunchtime there were queues of 30 minutes to get in - AFTER tickets had been purchased (at least you get to wait somewhere warm and dry!).  It will get worse before it finishes.  You can book tickets online.

This post will give you impressions of the exhibition and what you get from seeing the paintings up close which you don't get from images in books or websites.

This is also a fairly image heavy post.  I'll be doing another one on The Art of the Landscape and will also be posting the sketches I did somewhere!

Tom Thomson (Tom Thomson 1877–1917) is regarded by some as Canada's Van Gogh.  When I saw the paintings I realised why.  I had no idea that he loved paint that much.   His paintings have thick large lush brushmarks (think Tai Schierenberg - or Van Gogh!).  This is a man who was a master of the one hit negative painting.  He must have also had truck loads of paint within him in the wilderness!

One of the things which struck me about Thomson's paintings is that he is a painter who created paintings which work extremely well from a distance (good design, good tonal values/contrast) and yet his paintings get more interesting the closer you get because of his expressionistic brushstrokes - following the contours of his subject matter.  His sketches are also as interesting and well designed as his final works.

In some of his larger works he seemed to work with a warp and weft approach - horizontal thick slabs of paints for the sky and the water and vertical slabs of paint for the mountains and the trees - with the colours and tints very carefully worked out in advance.  The best example of this approach is The Jack Pine.  Images in the books about Thomson do not prepare you for the extent to which this painting was sculpted.

I looked very closely at more than a few of the sketches - of which there are many in the show - each one a little gem.  The approach on a number of them seemed to be a reddish raw sienna ground on which he then lightly sketched the outlines of shapes - particularly of the trees.  He then used a brush loaded with really lush paint to paint the shapes around the trees.  All his smaller works were done on small boards - usually 21cm x 27cm.

The bit I don't understand is that some of the very heavily textured works are described as being on canvas and yet I don't believe for one minute that these could ever have been rolled because of the thickness of the paint.  I'm wondering if they were painted on canvas attached to a board.

Tom Thomson, Sketch for The West Wind, 
Tom Thomson, The West Wind, 1917, 
Oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.2 cm, 
© Art Gallery of Ontario
Tom Thomson, Winter Thaw in the Woods, 1917, 
Oil on composite woodpulp board, 21.6 x 26.8 cm, 
Thomson Collection, AGO © Art Gallery of Ontario

Thomson is also a master colourist.  One of the huge benefits of this exhibition is that it showed you finished work next to preparatory sketch (By July 1917, Thomson has produced some 30 finished works and some 300 sketches while working in Algonquin Park).  From these one could easily see the extent to which he brightened colours and strengthened highlights to create a more dramatic contrast.  However this may be in part because of the fact he painted with a very limited colour palette when painting sketches plein air - usually some four colours altogether.

(Incidentally I now understand the point of Peter Doig's "White Canoe" and which painter has influenced his style of painting).

Nothing quite prepares you for the colour.  The catalogue has done a good job with most of the paintings at getting a faithful reproduction of the colour.  However the brightness of some of the paintings is best conveyed in real life eg Franklin Carmichael's Autumn Hillside positively vibrates on the wall.  I sat and did a sketch of this one and really began to appreciate Carmichael's approach to composition and colour.  Carmichael has been described as a "decorative painter" whereas I think of him now as a man who really enjoyed pattern and colour.  I also loved his Grace Lake and October Gold which are both much more impressive when seen in person.

There were people in the gallery who had been to Canada saying - but the trees really are that colour in Autumn!

Franklin Carmichael, Autumn Hillside, 1920, 
Oil on canvas 76 x 91.4cm, © Art Gallery of Ontario,
Gift from the J.S. McLean Collection, Toronto 
© Courtesy of the Estate of Franklin Carmichael

Lawren Harris's (Lawren Harris 1855–1970) paintings of snow and ice were quite surreal in terms of their  pale icy blue and turquoise colours.  I much preferred his small sketches of trees done before he got to his abstracted phase.  Lots of marks and no mixing of paint on the board.

Lawren Harris, Trees and Pool, c. 1920, 
Oil on panel, 26.7 x 35.6 cm, © Art Gallery of Ontario, 
© Family of Lawren S. Harris

Jim McDonald (J. E. H. MacDonald 1873–1932) appears to have been an interesting bloke.  Hardly the rugged outdoor type he nonetheless travelled to paint the Rockies and became "mountain mad".  He seemed to me to grasp how to demonstrate the hugeness of the place.  However his earlier works suggest he was always a painter who was comfortable portaying vast vistas.

J. E. H. MacDonald, Lake O’Hara, 1929, 
Oil on canvas, 53.6 x 66.5 cm, 
The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario
J. E. H. MacDonald, Falls, Montreal River, 1920, 
Oil on canvas 121.9 x 153 cm 
© Art Gallery of Ontario
I haven't included mention of all the artists or all the works I liked. However there is an awful lot to like about Canadian painting as represented in this exhibition.

In fact I'd go so far as to say I came away thinking that that it made some contemporary landscape painting I've seen in the last few years look very pedestrian. Let's not forget most of these paintings were also painted after a fair degree of effort was made to reach the places they painted!

Entrance to the Current Exhibition (which includes entrance to the Permanent Collection) is as follows:
• Adults £9.00
• Senior Citizens £8.00
• Unemployed, disabled and students £4 (valid student card must be available)
• Art Fund members £4.00
• Free entry for children under 18
• Free entry for Friends of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Exhibition Blog

This is the exhibition blog in which Julian Beecroft posted during 2011 as he crossed Canada to places the painters visited

Exhibition App

The Gallery has produced a Guide to Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven as an iPhone/iPad app (this is the GB link).  It's a condensed and summarised version.  You get to see most - but not all - the exhibits, the structure is the same as the exhibition and there is also explanation of the  In the UK it costs £1.99 and is very good value for money.  Highly recommended for those who would have liked to see the exhibition but are unable to visit.  Used in the exhibition it acts as an explanation of the painting being viewed.

Exhibition Catalogue
Exhibition Catalogue

The fully illustrated 216-page exhibition catalogue was published in the UK in the autumn.  Yesterday the catalogue for this exhibition Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven by Ian A.C. Dejardin, the Director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, was also published in the USA

My initial impressions are very favourable.  It passed the acid test of colour reproduction - most of the paintings are faithful to the painting in real life.  Not all are but this will be a problem of a photograph failing to render the colours properly.
The catalogue tells of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven’s collective quest to depict Canada in paint. It recounts their beginnings, the challenges they faced, and the remarkable and often extreme journeys they undertook in search of new subject matter. Essays by curator Ian Dejardin and co-curators Katerina Atanassova and Anna Hudson explore various aspects of the Group of Seven’s practice, consider the artists’ relationship with the Arctic north, and analyse Thomson’s art through the prism of the prevalent scientific theories of the day. A fresh, European perspective on the Canadians’ work is offered in essays exploring their links with Scandinavian art and European expressionism.
Available in paperback at a cost of £25 ($40). It is on sale online at

Exhibition Tour

This exhibition is also touring to two other European venues
Links to other reviews of this exhibition + a slideshow of image of some of the paintings
More Canadian Art

If you like Canadian landscape art and paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven and would like to see more of it take a look at Canadian Art Calendars 2012


  1. Ah, Katherine! You are making me homesick! I grew up and lived most of my life in south and central Ontario and camped in many places made famous by these artists.

    I was lucky enough to grow up within walking distance of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and a 40 min. drive to the AGO. I have seen a number of incredible paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. I had the opportunity some years ago to see an exhibition of just Tom Thomson at the National Gallery in Ottawa as well. I even got to meet one of the members of the Group of Seven, A.J. Casson, at an opening in the early 90's.

    Most of Tom Thomson's paintings are small sketches from Algonquin Park (one of my favourite places in the world) and area. He spent as much time as he could in a canoe and sketched constantly from around ice break until the snow got too deep. He was a late bloomer painting most of the works we recognize over a 6 year span beginning in his 30's.

    He produced hundreds of small 'plein air' sketches in Northern Ontario and relatively few studio paintings. It is debated as to whether the "West Wind" was ever finished.

    He was always broke and lived in a shack behind the "Studio Building" in Toronto during winters where he painted his large canvases and worked when he could. The shack was saved and now stands on the McMichael property. His death in 1917 is one of Canada's great mysteries with speculation continuing to this day.

    Some great books (and very recent) on the subject of Thomson and the Group of Seven included Roy MacGregor's "Northern Lights" and Ross King's "Defiant Spirits" - the latter being one of the best art books I have read. I spend hours looking through the National Gallery's book produced for the Tom Thomson show back in the early 2000's.

  2. How lucky are you to have done and seen all that! I think you'll really kick yourself if you don't also buy the catalogue for this exhibition. I think there has rarely been an exhibition like this even in Canada.

    There are walls full of Thomson sketches in this exhibition - and I think most if not all are in the book.

    Each of them gets a full page colour plate all to itself.

  3. Living close at hand, I've visited this exhibition a few times, and learnt new things each time.

    This really was a most enjoyable exhibition, and carries on the Galleries succession of different but interesting and even exciting exhibitions.

  4. I'm now seriously thinking about getting membership of the Art Fund which makes visits to galleries like Dulwich a little less expensive.

    I'm not sure I can justify a Friends of the Gallery membership as it's that bit more difficult to get to

  5. This exhibit sounds wonderful and I am so happy you had such a favorable experience as you absorbed the work by the Group of Seven.

    I visited the permanent collection of their work at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past spring and I could have stayed for days! Their plein air panels have all been re-framed into modern, white, straight-edged shadow boxes and they look stunning. The original, ornate frames are displayed empty (almost like an installation) in a transitional space between the rooms showcasing the Group's work. Although some of the paintings are close to 100 years old, they look fresh and exciting framed this way. These men found a way to describe our powerful Canadian landscape with intense colour, strong brushwork, and thick, textured paint that still seems relevant today.

    I recently learned that there is a gallery in Owen Sound (eastern Canada) called the Tom Thomson Art Gallery which houses a collection of his work. It is now on my list of places to go in the next 5 years.

  6. Hi Nicki, We look forward to welcoming you to the Gallery! We have a large collection of Thomson's art and artefacts as well as significant work by all members of the Group. Our "Canadian Spirit" exhibition tells the story of Tom's life and includes such items as his palettte, his baby cup, early work, later work, as well as photographs, copies of letters, telegrams and news paper articles.

    The Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound

  7. Great article.

    You have a quandary: "The bit I don't understand is that some of the very heavily textured works are described as being on canvas and yet I don't believe for one minute that these could ever have been rolled because of the thickness of the paint. I'm wondering if they were painted on canvas attached to a board."

    Someone in the curatorial department messed up. All of the small sketches were painted on board. 100 years later, i work exactly the same way. The boards can be slid into a purpose-built box, with separators. Painting on canvas would be hellishly difficult, here in the bush. Boards are for field work. Canvas for back 'ome in the studio


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