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The Group of Seven, Canada’s Impressionist Movement

How Impressionism helped a New Country Find its Voice

Friday, August 27, 2021

Evening by Tom Thompson (1913)Evening by Tom Thompson (1913)

Back in the early 1900s, the Canadian landscape was called “unpaintable” by skeptics. A lot was going on in Canada at the time; the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, non-native settlers were forging an incredibly wild and inhospitable countryside, and World War I was brewing. Perhaps, with so many settlers struggling to carve out lives in such uncertain terrain, the natural lands of Canada were considered too hostile for anyone to depict it with beauty. The rugged land was one to be tamed, not celebrated.

Fortunately, a group of Canadian artists did not see it that way.

The Group of Seven was Canada’s first internationally recognized art movement. This ragtag group of artists formed unofficially when five of the members met at Grip Limited, a design firm that grew to prominence during the heyday of commercial illustration. The firm employed A.Y. Jackson (founder of The Group of Seven), as well as Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, and Tom Thomson.

House of Ypres by A.Y JacksonHouse of Ypres by A.Y Jackson
Dark Autumn Rocky Mountains by James MacDonald
Dark Autumn Rocky Mountains by James MacDonald 

At the time, Canadian art was trying to find its voice. Critics felt the Canadian art of the time was too European and they longed for someone to capture the “spirit of the great northland.” In the eyes of critics, anyone who had yet attempted to do so had failed.

Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven

The original group of friends met around 1909, a tumultuous time. Before they were able to gain a firm footing in the local art scene, tragedy struck. World War I began in 1914, and three of the friends shipped overseas. Tom Thomson and Arthur Lismer stayed home to work and paint.

Thomson was enchanted by Algonquin Park, an enormous national park that boasted canoeing, fishing, and other natural pleasures for city-dwelling Canadians. The park was also peopled by bootleggers, foresters, and draft dodgers. Thomson often went fishing, camping, painting, and taking photographs in the park. He worked en plein air and was developing a unique style of Canadian impressionism that captured the beauty and vibrance of the surrounding natural spaces.

Unfortunately, one day in the summer of 1917, Thomson lost his life while canoeing in his beloved Algonquin Park. He could never join the official Group of Seven, which was founded a few years after his death, but he is included in the movement as his artistic genius, close friendship, and brilliant works contributed profoundly to Canadian impressionism.

The Jack Pine by Tom ThompsonThe Jack Pine by Tom Thompson
In the Northland by Tom Thompson
In the Northland by Tom Thompson

Thomson painted works that captured the desolate northland of Canada. These pieces include “The Jack Pine” and “In the Northland,” which showcase the region's wild beauty. “Jack Pine” has been in the permanent National Gallery of Canada’s collection since 1918. “In the Northland” has been passed from museum to museum since 1916, finally being acquired by Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2009.
After the War, the original crew from The Grip, along with A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate, and LeMoine Fitzgerald, founded The Group of Seven. This group of talented Canadian artists painted their way across the countryside. The coalition of incredible talent allowed each group member to learn from one another, explore various parts of the country, and capture landscapes with a modern style that revivified impressionism.

The Growth of Canadian Impressionism

The Group of Seven gained inspiration from classic impressionism, the Canadian landscape, and their own views on modern art. While most of the painters in The Group chose landscapes and pastoral subjects for their later works, they did not all begin painting in nature. Many of the painters chose to depict local slums, harbors, soldiers, the Great War, and the industrialization of their city.

However, as time wore on, artists like A.Y. Jackson and Frank Johnston moved away from such industrializing influences and shared their fascination with and love of the land in which they lived. 

One of the most exciting things about The Group of Seven is their disparate artistic styles. While four of the original group came from a graphic design background, several moved away from the simplicity of this style and incorporated other painting methods to express their feelings and impressions as they painted the rough and tumble beauty of Canada’s natural spaces.

The Group made a name for itself in the 1920s for art that shared the artist’s personal feelings about Canada’s wilderness. The shared vision made for successful exhibitions and created a foothold for Canadian art on an international stage.

The Group of Seven was later joined by more members, including A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate, and Emily Carr. These additions meant the movement needed a new name. They called themselves The Canadian Group of Painters, which grew to encompass twenty-eight painters across the nation.

Canadian art continues to evolve, incorporating new artists, more techniques, and modern works depicting Canada's changing landscape, cities, and faces. Fortunately, because of The Group of Seven, this incredible artwork now gets the attention it deserves on the international stage. 

Trees in France by Emily CarrTrees in France by Emily Carr

About Erin

ERIN HANSON has been painting in oils since she was 8 years old. As a teenager, she apprenticed at a mural studio where she worked on 40-foot-long paintings while selling art commissions on the side. After being told it was too hard to make a living as an artist, she got her degree in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley. Afterward, Erin became a rock climber at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Inspired by the colorful scenery she was climbing, she decided to return to her love of painting and create one new painting every week.

She has stuck to that decision, becoming one of the most prolific artists in history, with over 3,000 oil paintings sold to eager collectors. Erin Hanson’s style is known as "Open Impressionism" and is taught in art schools worldwide. With millions of followers, Hanson has become an iconic, driving force in the rebirth of impressionism, inspiring thousands of other artists to pick up the brush.