Tom Thomson — A Master in Canadian Art

A Master in Canadian Art

Story by Katherine Fawcett


Tom Thomson (1877–1917), Sunset, 1915, oil on board, 21.3 x 26.7 cm,
Gift of the Founders, Robert and Signe McMichael, McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Tom Thomson is the quintessential Canadian artist.
In his short but brilliant career, Thomson spurred the Group of Seven’s approach to landscape painting with ideas, techniques and ways of seeing that would reside within the arc of Canadian painting for decades. Thomson combined avant-garde European post-modernism with Canada's rugged, untamed environment — specifically northern Ontario — and developed a Canadian artistic identity that is as vibrant and crisp today as ever. He employed loose brush strokes, thick paint application, a high-key colour palette and a keen eye for ragged trees, sheer cliffs, jagged rocks, rippling water and stormy skies, creating art that speaks of the land during all seasons and all weather.

Thomson was born in 1877 in Claremont, Ont., a small town north of Toronto. He was largely self-taught and didn’t come to paint seriously until well into his 30s, when he moved to Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, Ont. He produced many sketches and paintings of the area while working as a park ranger and guide.
At the age of 39, Thomson died in a canoe accident under suspicious circumstances.

With a remarkable range of colours, Thomson brings the natural world to life. He captures the mood of the land and sky and the elements so vividly that viewers claim they can practically feel the bite of mosquitoes or the sting of a winter wind when in the presence of his work.

Tom Thomson (1877–1917), Snow in October, 1916–17, oil on canvas, 82.1 x 87.8 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, bequest of Dr. J.M. MacCallum, Toronto, 1944, 4722. Photo: NGC.
Tom Thomson (1877–1917), The Pointers, 1916–17, oil on canvas, 102.2 x 116.5 cm, Hart House Collection, University of Toronto, purchased by the Hart House Art Committee, 1928/1929. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

The Tom Thomson retrospective North Star at the Audain Art Museum (AAM) promises to be a summer blockbuster. It’s a comprehensive look at more than 130 pieces that AAM Director and Chief Curator Curtis Collins called “little jewels.”
Collins said Thomson “was an outdoorsman who established the idea of the lone Canadian experiencing the wilderness.” His paintings have long been national treasures, icons of the Canadian landscape that are well known worldwide.
“So much of art is about identity,” Collins said. “Thomson was working at a time when Canada was trying to establish itself as a stand-alone nation, breaking from its colonial British roots.”
However, even visitors unfamiliar with Thomson’s work will feel the crackle and immediacy of the pieces, Collins said.

This exhibition is a coup for the AAM, a relatively new Canadian art museum.
“The Audain Art Museum is consistently positioning itself among the heavy hitters on the Canadian art scene,” Collins said. “We have a fraction of the staff and the budget, yet we produce shows to the level of those major museums. It’s endlessly challenging, and we’re only eight years old. But we’re an international quality Category A museum, and when a curator from one of the more established galleries or museums comes to see what we have here, they’re blown away. The quality of our spaces [is] the perfect fit for such shows. We can host these comprehensive and important productions, and people will [still] get a very intimate experience.”

Tom Thomson (1877–1917), Purple Hill, 1916, oil on wood panel, 21.6 x 26.7 cm, Gift of Mrs. H.P. de Pencier, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Tom Thomson (1877–1917), Late Autumn, 1915, oil on plywood, 26.7 x 21.6 cm, Gift of Margaret Thomson Tweedale, McMichael Canadian Art

Tom Thomson (1877–1917), Spring Ice, 1915–16, oil on canvas, 72 x 102.3 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, purchased 1916, 1195. Photo: NGC.

Tom Thomson: North Star is a McMichael Canadian Art Collection production, co-curated by Executive Director and Chief Curator Sarah Milroy and former Executive Director Ian Dejardin. It is showing at the AAM from June 29 to Oct. 14, 2024.

Featured Image for this story:

Tom Thomson (1877–1917), Northern Lights, 1916 or 1917, oil on wood, 21.5 × 26.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Bequest of Dr. J.M. MacCallum, Toronto, 1944, Photo: NGC