The Hot Canadian Painter I Met on the Internet : Notes on Tom Thomson
The mystery surrounding the tragic early death of Tom Thomson (1877–1917) has overshadowed the magic of his short magnificent career as a painter.
Much has been written about how Thomson, an outdoorsman and excellent swimmer, appears to have drowned in a lake in Ontario. This occurred just a few weeks before what would have been a 40th birthday for Thomson, a handsome man known to at times dress sharply.
The young artist was “quite the dandy,” wrote David P. Silcox in his book, “Tom Thomson: Life & Work.” (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on this book and other works used in research for this essay.)
“Women liked him, though at times he could be moody and quarrelsome and drink too much,” Silcox wrote of Thomson.
“Many of his friends and colleagues later described him as periodically erratic and sensitive, with fits of unreasonable despondency. Throughout his life, he was attracted to quality items — silk shirts, meals in elegant restaurants, fine pipes and tobacco. Even when he reduced his possessions to a minimum for a roving life of camping and canoeing in Algonquin Park, he still bought the best paints, brushes, and wood panels on the market.”
The official — and likely — version of Thomson’s death is that he suffered a mishap and drowned in the lake, although there has been speculation for years about murder or suicide as the cause.
Yet there is another mystery about Thomson, according to art historian Ian Dejardin, executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario.
What prompted Thomson’s radical shift into a masterful use of bold colors in the final years of his life? Compare, for example, the pictures below.
The one on the left is a Thomson painting dated to 1912. The Thomson painting on the right, “The Jack Pine,” dated to 1916, is one of the most famous of all works of Canadian art. What a major change in style over just a few years.
With “Old Lumber Dam, Algonquin Park,” Thomson puts the viewer in this wooded scene. The earthy brown and greens colors have, for me at least, a soothing effect.
“Old Lumber Dam, Algonquin Park” reminds me of many other fine paintings of wooded scenes. I’m not enough of a naturalist to be able to quickly spot anything particularly Canadian in this painting. “Old Lumber Dam, Algonquin Park” reminds me of some of the famous paintings of what’s called the Barbizon School.
This label refers to artists who in the mid 19th century traveled from Paris by train to a nearby country town, Barbizon, to tramp out to nearby woods to paint. Among the artists who worked there was Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. Below I’ve put a copy of Corot’s “Rocks in the Forest of Fountainebleau” next to Thomson’s “Old Lumber Dam, Algonquin Park.”
If you were to have tried to trick me a few weeks ago and told me this Thomson painting was a Post-Impressionist take on the famous Forest of Fontainebleau near Barbizon, I might have a few questions about the trees. But I might not. I might very well have just nodded agreeably and tried to say something interesting about the brushwork.
That observation is not meant as a slight to “Old Lumber Dam, Algonquin Park.” There’s a strong meditative pull on viewers from woodland scenes, whether painted by Thomson or Corot or any skilled artist. “Old Lumber Dam, Algonquin Park” seems the kind of canvas with which you might spend a few quiet moments on a visit to the National Gallery in Ottawa.
But Thomson’s “The Jack Pine”?
That painting by itself seems like a reason to make your way to the charming city of Ottawa and visit the National Gallery. (Or at least that’s why a visit to Ottawa is high on my list of plans for post-pandemic life.)
Thomson gives us a bold New World landscape made even more beautiful with techniques seemingly borrowed from Art Nouveau. The tree’s branches are articulated, the sky seen across the lake glows with jewel-like tones.
Thomson had little formal training in art, but he had talent and drive. He was draftsman and etcher who fell in with other commercial artists working in Toronto in the 1910s. This group would come to be called the Group of Seven after Thomson’s death. These artists talked about defining a Canadian style of art. They took weekend jaunts to paint in nature, an activity that sounds to me a bit like the Parisian artists heading to woods around Barbizon to charge their creative spirits.
By 1912, Thomson had fallen hard for the charms of Algonquin Park.
With the support of a patron, Thomson was able to make a break from commercial art. He then spent as much time as possible living and working and sketching around Algonquin.
Thomson would arrive “as the ice broke in spring and staying until the harsh winter drove him back to Toronto,” according to a handout for the 2012–2013 exhibition, “Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.” The McMichael Canadian Art Collection arranged this show, whose lead organizer was Ian Dejardin, then director of the U.K.’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. An expert fisherman, Thomson picked up extra money from time to time as a park guide.
“At the same time, he painted hundreds of electrifying small sketches, the most promising of which he then worked up into finished canvases in Toronto over the winter months, selling just enough to prevent him from having to return to work as a commercial artist,” according to the handout.
By 2017, Dejardin was the executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. In a video posted to the museum’s YouTube channel that year, Dejardin reflects on how Thomson’s work shifted dramatically. Looking at his paintings, we can see a break from the “very limited palette” of some of his earlier work, as Dejardin described it.
“There is just this moment where suddenly color happens. How did he do it?” Dejardin says.
“I don’t know. I’d love to be a fly on the wall back in 1912, ’13, ’14, to overhear some of the discussions” that Thomson had with his friends who would become famous as members of the Group of Seven, the art historian added.
Thomson “was liberated by what his understanding of Post-Impressionist art was to use color and the minute he starts using color, his genius kicks in,” Dejardin says.
What a loss for Canada and art lovers everywhere that Thomson had such a short time to show us that genius. Look at the painting below to see how Thomson uses bits of fiery-orange to bring alive even this painting dominated by more muted colors.
I confess it feels a little odd to write on works I have not studied “in the paint,” only in photos.
I used to think you didn’t know a painting unless you saw it up close and then stepped back from it and then walked up to it again for another inspection, and repeated this process three or four times. Maybe you walked away and checked out other works in nearby rooms of the museum you were visiting and then circled back to the one you are studying. This approach still likely is many art lovers’ preferred way to spend time with paintings. I know it’s mine.
But my view on how we become acquainted with art is shifting.
There is more to see out there than even a frequent traveler like me will ever get to. A joy of the 21rst century is the universe of art you can see from your home — or where you want to surf for it on the Internet via your laptop, tablet or phone. I’m grateful to Eleanor Jackson for her post on Thomson on the fantastic Facebook group, Art History and Fine Art. That was my introduction to Thomson, whose works I now long to someday see in the paint.