"Because we love bare hills and stunted trees/ we head north when we can,/ past tiaga, tundra, rocky shoreline, ice.
Where does it come from, this sparse taste/ of ours?/ How long/ did we roam this hadrscape, learninng by heart/ all that we used to know:/ turn skin fur side in,/ partner with wolves, eat fat, hate waste,/ carve spirit, respect the snow,/ build and guard the flame?"
- excerpt from "Improvisation on a first line by Yeats (from Hound Voice)" by Margaret Atwiid, from Dearly: New Poems, New York, Ecco Press: 2020.
Given the similarities in their climates it is hardly surprising that paintings by members of Canada's Group of Seven makes the viewer think of the northern Europeans - Munch, Van Gogh, Arnold Bocklin, or Ferdinand Hodler - all of them painters from the early 20th century. If there is a significant difference between the Canadians and the Europeans it is that when we look at the Canadians we cannot help but think of the vastness of the prairie in the background of their landscapes.
Trees give the measure of the landscape in Tom Thomson's paintings, their forms give shape and meaning to the surroundings. In the foreground of Evening, Canoe Lake trunks of winter birch trees are painted in ochre and gold with bits of tangerine. Auburn and cobalt, applied horizontally define the rocky shoreline; used vertically these same shades in thin blended strokes define the birches that cling to it. The emphatic purple of the mountain range as viewed through the scrim of the trees is a Thomson signature. We know this is North America by the bold colors that cold fall nights bring. This idiosyncratic palette is typical of Thomson's work, his control of them is phenomenal. Despite his very early death, Thomson's influence is apparent in the work of the other painters of the Group of Seven, only established after his passing.
Algonquin Park does not possess conventionally beautiful scenery, with swamps, flooded by beaver dams, and clear-cut pine forests but as part of the geological formation the Pre-Cambrian Shield it did provide a quintessentially Canadian landscape for artists searching for a national identity.
Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was a self-taught artist who worked in Toronto for the design group Grip Ltd. On his own time he hiked and climbed mountains and painted what he saw. He soaked up influences from Van Gogh and Cezanne. For Thomson the far reaches of Algonquin Park were his Mont Sainte-Victoire. He painted pictures from the age of fifteen onward; his need to paint was relentless. Along with hundreds of oil sketches, Thomson left behind fifty large oil paintings.
The American poet Robert Frost became a friend and mentor to Thomson around the time of the outbreak of the World War. Thomson had lost his job and was anguished about whether her should, at thirty-seven, enlist in the Army, becoming "the oldest bald head in the battalion."
Canoe Lake was the place where Thomson entered the park when he disembarked the train from Toronto. A logging town named for a lake, this was where Thomson loved to canoe and to paint. It was also where he disappeared on a summer night in 1917. His canoe was seen floating on the lake in the afternoon but his body was only recovered from the waters eight days later. Thomson was less than a month away from what would have been his twentieth birthday. The circumstances of his death gave a mythic cast to his reputation in retrospect but to Canadians Thomson remains the quintessential Canadian artist.
Image: Tom Thomson - Evening, Canoe Lake, circa 1915, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.