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The Group of Seven and the wild Canada

28 décembre 2016

The wild landscapes of Canadian lands have inspired generations of artists, but no one as much as Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Let’s go travel between grandiose lakes, solitary trees and bright colors.

Canada, an artistic yet too traditional land

Forty years after its unification by the Confederation of 1867, Canada is in the process of defining its own political, economic and social identity. While its influence is increasing on the world chessboard, in the artistic and cultural field however, the country whom symbol is the maple leaf is way behind. Still enslaved by the pictorial traditions of the Old Continent, Canadian painting is strongly influenced by conventions and European taste. Landscape art has existed for decades, and despite the opening of the Canadian Pacific Railway's transcontinental railway, which allows access to the Prairie and Rocky Mountains, it is mainly featuring simple representations made through the sibylline European academic prism. In this frozen and moribund atmosphere, the first sparks of an announced change are lit by Maurice Cullen and James Wilson Morrice, who were among the first artists to apply the principles of French Impressionism to Canadian landscapes. The real flame will come from a small group of painters who meet in Toronto in the early 1910s to present their respective works, their inspirations and to think of way out for Canadian art. 

Tom Thomson, the eighth member

One evening on March 1920, at the 63 Queen's Park Street in Toronto, the instigators of a new pictorial movement give birth to the Group of Seven. The name is logically inspired from the number of the founding members who decided to formally unite to propose a new artistic and national vision of Canada, as it was then a young nation in search of identity. Lawren Harris, James MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael, Frank Johnston and Alexander Jackson inaugurated their first exhibition in May of the same year.


Long before becoming the Group of Seven, these same painters associated with Tom Thompson, who died in 1917 before the very formation of the group, have seen each other since 1912. MacDonald, Lismer, Varley, Johnston, Carmichael and Thompson met at Grip Ltd., a graphic design company in Toronto where they all worked. The advertising work does not particularly raise the enthusiasm of these artists, but the freedom granted by artistic director Albert Robson is essential. They can easily attend Art classes or take long periods of summer vacation to complete their painting expeditions. Through MacDonald, they meet Lawren Harris at the Toronto Arts & Letters Club where men meet to discuss literature, theater, architecture and fine arts. Supported financially by Harris, who is the heir of the Massey-Harris Agricultural Manufacture, and by Dr. James MacCallum, they finance the construction of a workshop building that will eventually become the meeting place and workplace for this new movement in the making.

Although he is not officially a member of the Group of Seven, Tom Thompson is the most emblematic and influential artist in the movement. Talented self-taught, he is an outdoor painter and an insatiable explorer who constantly pushes others to paint the wild landscapes of the North. Drowned in 1917 in the midst of Canoe Lake, Tom Thompson will not participate in the nascent venture of the Group, but his friends never had the slightest doubt that, had he remained alive, he would have taken part in the adventure, as confirmed Harris: "I counted Tom Thomson as a member, even if the group's name was given after his death, he was nevertheless essential to the movement, an integral part of its beginning and its development, in the same way as its other members."

"The contents of a drunkard's stomach"

Inclined to develop a nationalist and autochthonous painting, the Group of Seven soon claimed to represent the National School of Canada. According to these artists, the wild nature of their country requires to be represented in a style more impertinent and more vigorous, in much more vivid colors, than the classic and academic landscape paintings. Canada, a vast and wild land full of vitality, must be represented in a style that fuels its own qualities. The paintings contemplate magnificent and powerful visions of rivers, lakes and forests in areas where the presence of man is rare, or even totally absent.

Two events will definitely mark the style of the Group of Seven. Alexander Jackson and Frederick Varley participate in the First World War. Once in Europe, they took the opportunity to study the movements and works of post-impressionists and neo-impressionists. The local scenes of horrors will be found later in their compositions, especially in the use of dead trees and devastated or rugged landscapes. The most significant event took place earlier in 1912 when MacDonald and Harris visited an exhibition of Scandinavian contemporary paintings in Buffalo. The Group's stylistic research will definitely take a new direction. Struck by the Scandinavian approach, which uses light to sublimate the Nordic landscapes, they deduce that these paintings could also represent the great nature of their Canada.

After their first exhibition in 1920, critics poured on the Group's paintings which look “the contents of a drunkard's stomach” and which "represent contempt of good morals". But their work is unconditionally supported by Eric Brown, director of the The National Gallery of Canada, who makes sure that paintings are visible at major Canadian exhibitions and at the Wembley exhibition in the UK, and he quickly stops the critics. The years between 1925 and 1931 defined more deeply the importance of the subject, considering the latter as a criterion of Canadian national painting. Following a series of expeditions, ever farther and ever more northerly, the members of the Group of Seven perpetually sought out the most imbued corners of forms, atmosphere, soul and spirituality. Strongly convinced that the soul of Canada must be felt in its very essence, they have concretized their vision of a northern nation fully embracing its vast wilderness.

Separated in 1933, the Group of Seven gave birth to a new movement giving Art a simpler, more accessible and more expressive meaning: the Group of Canadian Painters. The latter, composed mainly of young artists, will have contributed to the renown of the Group of Seven by democratizing the legacy of these painters of the wild North, which today occupy a prominent place at the heart of Canadian history.

Natasha Miller, between dream and reality

Native of Vancouver Island, on the Pacific coast of Canada, Natasha Miller lives today in the Bay of Fundy in the very northeast of the country. In the midst of these wild landscapes, in this region where fishing is part of every daily activity, tides shape a coastal landscape that is constantly changing. The artworks of Natasha Miller are marked by this untamed nature. Painted in acrylic, mixed with charcoal, which she realizes itself from maple charcoal directly extracted from her wood-burning oven, her paintings are generally marine landscapes where the human element seems to have completely disappeared. Only a few colored indications of his existence emerge from these peaceful landscapes. Natasha Miller wants to offer the spectator a sober and soothing framework that everyone can appropriate for himself and thus enrich with his personal interpretation.