This Week in History


A.J. Casson: the Youngest of the Group of Seven

For the week of Monday May 16, 2005

On May 17, 1898, Alfred Joseph Casson was born in Toronto, Ontario. During his lifetime, a hard-working attitude would make him one of Canada’s most celebrated painters and a renowned commercial artist.

Example of Casson
Give Us the Tools and We Will Finish the Job: Victory Loan Drive. (1941)
© Library and Archives Canada / 1983-30-585

Casson’s life revolved around art from the beginning. At age 14 his teacher, recognizing his talent, let Casson teach his art class. When Casson saw Group of Seven paintings for the first time in Toronto, the works of A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer’s particularly impressed him. However, Casson chose commercial rather than fine art as his career.

He became the assistant to Franklin Carmichael, a commercial artist and Group member. Casson’s relationship with Carmichael was an important artistic influence on his own artwork. They both preferred watercolour, had stylistic ties to their commercial work, and founded The Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1925. It was Carmichael that introduced him to the Group of Seven.

Casson occasionally met the Group of Seven at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club throughout the 1920s. In 1926 he officially joined the Group, replacing a departing member. The Group concentrated on northern landscapes while Casson’s interests were focused on villages in southern Ontario in the 1920s and 1930s. His most notable periods were the Elora Period in 1926 and the Alton Period in 1929. These works are known for their sense of stillness, exceptional detail, absence of human figures, but with humanizing elements such as a rocking chair. In 1945, Casson began a period of abstraction to achieve what Group member Lawren Harris encouraged: the simplification and elimination of non-essentials in the artwork. In the 1950s, Casson expanded into dramatic landscapes and other media. 

Magnetewan River Near Canal (oil on board)
© Collection of the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario; Gift of the Artist, 1977.

Casson accepted the Groups’ constructive criticisms, but also created his own style and leadership through art societies, organizations, and in his commercial art career. He retired from commercial work in 1957, after designing two Canadian stamps, in order to paint full-time. For the next 35 years he was honoured with many awards and medals from all levels of government and arts-related organizations. He received three honourary degrees from universities, and both a lake and a township are named after him.

A.J. Casson continued painting late into his life while telling stories of the Group’s history. He was the last of the Group to die on February 19, 1992 in Toronto. He is buried alongside the Group of Seven, who’s founding as a group was designated a national historic event in 1974.

For more information on the Group of Seven, visit Canada on Display and Lawren S. Harris and His Original Landscapes in the archives of This Week In History.

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