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The Legend of Tom Thomson

This story was initially published in 2009

On the morning of July 8, 1917, Tom Thomson, a famous Canadian painter, went canoeing as usual. That afternoon, his canoe was found floating overturned on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, Ontario, with no trace of the painter. Eight days later, his body was recovered, but the cause of his death is still a mystery to this day.

Tom Thomson (1877-1917)
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-121719
Thomson was born in 1877 near Claremont, Ontario. He grew up on a farm in Rose Hill, where he displayed musical, drawing and painting talents very early on. After trying three times in vain to enlist in the Boer War, he became a machinist, and later decided to follow in his brothers’ footsteps and enrolled in the Canadian Business College in Chatham, Ontario. After his studies, he joined his brother George in Seattle, Washington, where he took a calligraphy course and later worked in photoengraving. During the three years he spent in Seattle, he also studied commercial art, did pen-and-ink drawings, and painted in watercolours.

He returned unexpectedly to Canada in 1904 and continued working as a photoengraver. Around 1906, he began painting in oil and the following year was hired by Grip Ltd., a photoengraving company, which marked a turning point in his life. There, J.E.H. Macdonald, the workshop instructor, stimulated his creativity and introduced him to other talented artists, who would form the Group of Seven in 1920. On the weekends, he explored Toronto’s countryside with this group of artists to make sketches. His curiosity about the wilderness, however, took him further north into Algonquin Park and the Mississauga Forest Reserve. Upon returning from one of these excursions, he completed “A Northern Lake,” his first major painting, which was warmly received. This work was proof of a growing interest in nature as an artistic subject.

Canoe Lake (oil on panel 8 1/2" by 10 1/2")
© Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario

In the years that followed, Thomson devoted more of his time to painting. He made numerous sketches and always went back to Toronto during the winter to paint. His very personal style is characterized by thick brushstrokes and balanced tones. For him, the northern landscape was an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a typically Canadian form of expression. In spite of his brief career, he produced many notable works that have now become national symbols.

Tom Thomson was designated a person of national historic importance in 1958. To learn more about Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, visit Canada on Public Display in the This Week in History archives.

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