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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Tom Thomson

The Canoe, spring or fall 1912, Tom Thomson
Perhaps not so much today, but in years past it would have been little short of blasphemy for an artist to admit he or she did not like the "great outdoors." Of course now, as then, most artists paint indoors, even landscape artists, as they struggled to bring the outdoors into the creature comforts of their indoor studio. Well, if this is blasphemous, so be it, I'm not fond of the outdoors. Maybe that's the reason I seldom paint landscapes, or maybe it's because I don't consider them challenging enough. I suppose, if I had to venture out into the wild open spaces in search of just the right spot within the realm of nature from which to paint, and then actually do so, I'd have more respect for the great landscape painters of the past. Be that as it may, whenever I spot the work of an exceptional landscape painter, my first inclination is to want to write about that artist and bring their work to the notice of others. One such painter which fits that description was the Canadian landscape artist, Tom Thomson.

The Jack Pine, 1916-17, Tom Thomson. Note the similarities as well as the differences between Thomson's initial oil sketch (above, left) and the final work (above, right).
Thomson's Jack Pine?
Tom Thomson made the Jack Pine famous. Or perhaps, his painting, The Jack Pine (above) did so. I guess you could even argue that the Jack Pine provided Tom Thomson with some degree of fame. That sort of boils down to which came first, the Jack Pine or the artist who painted it. The iconic tree at right is located on the shores of Carcajou Bay, Grand Lake, in Algonquin Park where Thomson spent the final few years of his life, 1912-17. As might be expected, if the photo (right) is Thomson's Jack Pine, then obviously it has changed in the nearly one-hundred years since Thomson made it immortal. I guess any tree more than a century old could lay claim to immortality without the benefit of an artist to paint its rugged boughs. Assuming the designation as Thomson's Jack Pine is correct, it seems to look better today than when Thomson painted it.

The life and times of one of Canada's most beloved landscape painters.
Although Tom Thomson is one of Canada's most revered painters, his career as an painter was both short (a mere five years) and evolved rather haphazardly. Thomson was born in 1877 near Claremont, Ontario, not far from Toronto, but grew up further west in Leith, Ontario, on Owen Sound, (an arm of Lake Huron). Though displaying some art talent as a child, Thomson's early years were rather restless and aimless. He began as a machine shop apprentice but was fired for chronic tardiness. He tried to join the army but was turned down for medical reasons. Eventually he found work as a ranger in Algonquin Park located in central Ontario. Then in 1901, Thomson enrolled in business college only to drop out eight months later in order to travel to Seattle, Washington, where his older brother had started a business school. Thomson's earliest known painting, Lake Washington (below) was painted during this period. However, "this period," lasted only until 1904 when Thomson returned to Canada, finding employment at a graphic design firm in Toronto. Notice, at no point along the line did he study art.

Lake Washington, 1904, Tom Thomson's first known painting.
Although Thomson was already familiar with Algonquin park as a ranger, when he revisited the wilderness area again around 1912, he did so as a artist along with some of his friends from work. In the months that followed, Thomson and his newfound art colleagues began spending their spare time sketching and painting the then largely untouched beauty of the dozens of interconnected lakes which "pockmarked" the park. Upon their return, Thomson and his friends exhibited their works through the Ontario Society of Artists. In 1913, Thomson sold his first painting, Northern Lake (below). The following year, the National Gallery of Canada began acquiring his paintings.

Northern Lake, Tom Thomson, 1913, the first painting he sold.
Not only was Tom Thomson largely self-taught, but he did not begin painting seriously until around 1912 when he took up residence at the park, working as a firefighter, ranger, and guide. Finding that he had far less time to paint than he would have liked, Thomson quit his "day jobs" to take up painting fulltime. His "residence" in the park, which he built himself, was crude at best, often going unheated, even in winter, due to a lack of funds for fuel.

Affectionately referred to as "the shack," the studio Thomson and his more
hearty friends share was somewhat more than that, but not much.
Path Behind Mowat Lodge, Tom Thomson
Between 1912 and his death in 1917, Thomson produced hundreds of small oil sketches, many of which are now considered important works in their own right. One of them, Thomson's Pine Island, Georgian Bay (bottom) from, 1914–16, is quite similar to his The Jack Pine painted around the same time. My favorite, The Canoe (top) is especially poignant in that it was while paddling this canoe across the lake one night he somehow accidentally capsized and (maybe) drowned, though the exact nature, cause, and complexities of his death are largely unknown and the subject of more conjecture than those of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy com-bined. Thomson's The Tent (below) was painted in 1914 during the all-important last few years of his life. Together it and The Canoe make a fitting beginning and ending for the life and career of one of Canada's finest landscape artists.

The Tent, 1914, Tom Thomson

Pine Island, Georgian Bay, 1914–16, Tom Thomson


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