Breaking Boundaries: How the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, & Emily Carr Redefined Canadian Art

By Jeff Dillon | March 7, 2024 | All Posts
"The Jack Pine" by Tom Thomson
Identifying a single most iconic image of the Group of Seven is challenging due to the collective’s diverse body of work and the varying interpretations of what constitutes “iconic.” However, “The Jack Pine” by Tom Thomson (who, while not an official member, is closely associated with the Group and had a significant influence on its members) is often cited as one of the most emblematic images related to the Group of Seven. 

The Group of Seven, a collective of visionary Canadian artists, along with the iconic Emily Carr and Tom Thomson, aspired to capture the unparalleled beauty of Canada, aiming to become the Vincent van Goghs of their homeland. Through their vivid portrayals of Canada’s untamed landscapes, they not only revolutionized the nation’s artistic perspective but also established a lasting legacy for future generations of artists to build upon. Embarking on unique paths over the years, their goal remained unified: to immortalize the majestic beauty of Canada on canvas. This narrative delves into the lives and enduring legacies of these artists, weaving their individual stories into the broader tapestry of Canadian art history, all while highlighting their shared ambition to portray Canada’s exquisite landscapes and their desire to be remembered as the Vincent van Gogh’s of Canada.

Alfred Joseph Casson (A.J. Casson)  - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

A.J. Casson:

Alfred Joseph Casson (A.J. Casson) was born on May 17, 1898, in Toronto, Ontario. As a later addition to the Group of Seven, Casson brought a fresh perspective and vitality to the collective, further enriching the movement’s exploration of Canada’s natural beauty. With a keen eye for Ontario’s rural landscapes and small towns, Casson’s work provided a delicate, yet dynamic portrayal of the changing Canadian environment. His paintings, often celebrated for their refined detail and vibrant colours, capture the essence of the Canadian spirit and its landscapes.

Casson’s career was not only marked by his artistic achievements but also by his dedication to preserving Canadian art history and its landscapes. He played a significant role in the Ontario Society of Artists and served as its president, advocating for the arts and artists throughout his life. Casson’s influence extended beyond the canvas, as he worked in graphic design and brought his artistic sensibilities to the commercial world, which helped to define a visual identity for Canada.

Throughout his prolific career, A.J. Casson continued to evolve his style, while remaining true to his vision of capturing the serene beauty of Canada’s landscapes. By the time of his passing on February 20, 1992, in Toronto, Casson had left behind a legacy that included hundreds of paintings, each a testament to his love for and dedication to Canadian art and scenery. A.J. Casson’s contributions to the Group of Seven and Canadian art as a whole have ensured his place as an enduring figure in the narrative of Canada’s artistic heritage, inspiring future generations with his commitment to both art and country. A.J. Casson passed away of natural causes at the age of 93, leaving a lasting impact through his distinctive paintings and his role in promoting Canadian identity through art.

Alexander Young Jackson (A.Y. Jackson) - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

A.Y. Jackson: 

Alexander Young Jackson (A.Y. Jackson) was born on October 3, 1882, in Montreal, Quebec. As a founding member of the Group of Seven, he played a pivotal role in the development of Canadian art, advocating for the recognition of Canada’s unique landscapes as worthy subjects for high art. His passion for capturing the Canadian wilderness took him from the rugged shores of the Atlantic to the expansive vistas of the Rocky Mountains, painting en plein air to directly capture the spirit of the landscapes he so loved. Throughout his life, Jackson produced over 2,500 paintings, showcasing the diversity and beauty of Canada’s geography.

After serving in World War I, where he was both injured and acted as an official war artist, Jackson’s commitment to art deepened. His post-war works reflected a more nuanced understanding of the landscapes he painted, integrating his experiences of the war’s impact on both people and nature. When the Group of Seven disbanded in 1933, Jackson didn’t slow down; instead, he became a central figure in the Canadian Group of Painters, formed in 1933, continuing his role as a mentor and advocate for Canadian art. 

Jackson’s teaching positions at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta and the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) in Toronto allowed him to directly influence generations of artists. He was not just a painter but also a storyteller, sharing the beauty of Canada’s landscapes through his art and teachings. A.Y. Jackson passed away on April 5, 1974, in Kleinburg, Ontario, but his legacy lives on through his vast body of work, his contributions to Canadian art movements, and his influence on countless Canadian artists who followed in his footsteps. A.Y. Jackson died of natural causes at the age of 91.

Lawren Stewart Harris - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

Lawren Harris: 

Lawren Stewart Harris, born on October 23, 1885, in Brantford, Ontario, emerged as a pivotal figure in Canadian art, notably for his role in founding the Group of Seven, a collective that sought to develop a distinct Canadian artistic identity through the depiction of the nation’s landscape. Harris’s work, initially rooted in directly observed nature, underwent a significant transformation over his career. His early paintings are celebrated for their vivid representation of the Canadian wilderness, particularly the landscapes of the Algoma region and the Arctic. These works are characterized by bold colours, dynamic compositions, and a deep emotional resonance, reflecting Harris’s connection to the land and his spiritual quest for deeper meaning through art.

By the mid-1930s, Harris’s artistic direction shifted towards a more abstract and symbolic representation of landscapes, culminating in his move towards abstract expressionism. This evolution mirrored his personal spiritual journey and interest in theosophy, an esoteric belief system that seeks to explore the underlying spiritual unity of the universe. Harris believed that art should reflect spiritual realities and sought to express these ideas through his abstract works.

In 1940, seeking new artistic and personal beginnings, Harris moved to the United States, eventually settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and later in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he continued to evolve his abstract style. Throughout his career, Harris was prolific, creating hundreds of paintings that span a wide range of styles from representational landscapes to abstract compositions. Some of his most notable works include “Lake Superior” (c. 1923), “Mount Lefroy” (c. 1930), and “North Shore, Lake Superior” (c. 1926).

Harris’s impact on Canadian art extends beyond his paintings. As a benefactor, he supported fellow artists and advocated for the establishment of art institutions that would nurture Canadian talent. His vision and leadership in the Group of Seven helped to foster a sense of national identity in Canadian art. Lawren Harris passed away on January 29, 1970, in Vancouver, leaving behind a legacy that has continued to inspire and influence generations of artists. His work is celebrated not only for its artistic merit but also for its contribution to the cultural heritage of Canada. Lawren Harris passed away from natural causes at the age of 85.

J.E.H. MacDonald - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

J.E.H. MacDonald: 

J.E.H. MacDonald, born on May 12, 1873, in Durham, England, before emigrating to Canada with his family in 1887, quickly established himself as a cornerstone of Canadian artistry. As a principal figure in the Group of Seven, his contribution to the movement was instrumental in its success, embodying the spirit of the Canadian landscape through his bold and vibrant works. MacDonald’s artistry was not confined to a single medium; he was adept in oil paintings, watercolours, and even ventured into graphic design, contributing significantly to the arts scene in Toronto where he worked and lived.

His passion for the Canadian landscape was unmatched, leading him to explore and paint various regions of Canada, from the rugged wilderness of the Rockies to the serene landscapes of Algoma and the shores of Georgian Bay. MacDonald’s work, characterized by dynamic compositions and a rich palette, aimed to evoke the emotional and spiritual feelings he experienced in nature. Among his most famous works, “The Solemn Land” (1921) and “Mist Fantasy, Northland” (1922), exemplify his ability to capture the mystical qualities of the Canadian wilderness.

Little known fact: In 1923, St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto Canada on Gladstone Avenue near Dundas Street West, tasked J.E.H. MacDonald, a founding member of the Group of Seven, with designing artwork for the church’s interior that depicted the life of Christ. MacDonald brought in nine other artists, including Franklin Carmichael and Frederick Varley. Their murals adorned the chancel and dome. The church, unique for featuring artwork by members of the Group of Seven, was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1996. Additionally, the City of Toronto designated it under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1980.

MacDonald’s influence extended beyond his canvases; he was a mentor to many artists and a key figure in the Toronto arts community, working as an educator and advocate for the arts. Despite his untimely death on November 26, 1932, MacDonald’s legacy is a testament to his profound impact on the development of Canadian art. With over 300 recorded paintings, his works are preserved in collections across the country, including the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, continuing to inspire artists and art lovers alike. Through his dedication and vision, J.E.H. MacDonald immortalized the Canadian landscape, ensuring its beauty and spirit would be celebrated for generations to come. J.E.H. MacDonald produced 43 paintings in his career and suffered a stroke and died at the age of 58.

Arthur Lismer - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

Arthur Lismer: 

Arthur Lismer, born on June 27, 1885, in Sheffield, England, embarked on a journey that would see him become one of Canada’s most celebrated artists and educators. Lismer’s artistic voyage began across the Atlantic, but it was in Canada where his vision truly took shape. As a founding member of the Group of Seven, Lismer was pivotal in the movement that sought to capture Canada’s raw, natural beauty through bold and colourful landscapes. His work, characterized by vibrant, almost fantastical interpretations of nature, stood out for its dynamic expression and innovative use of colour.

Moving beyond his contributions to the Group of Seven, Lismer’s impact was profoundly felt in the realm of art education. After the group disbanded, he turned his attention more fully to nurturing the next generation of artists. In 1927, Lismer became the Vice Principal of the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), and later, he spearheaded innovative art education programs at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. His approach was revolutionary, emphasizing creative expression and the importance of art in education, principles that resonated deeply within the Canadian art community.

Lismer’s dedication to art education did not hinder his own artistic endeavours. Throughout his life, he produced a substantial body of work, approx. 800 pieces,  contributing significantly to the Canadian and international art scenes. His legacy includes not just the number of paintings he created but also the countless students he inspired, many of whom went on to make their own marks in the art world.

Arthur Lismer passed away on March 23, 1969. His legacy, however, endures not only through his paintings but also through his pioneering efforts in art education. Lismer left behind a rich tapestry of contributions to Canadian culture, bridging the gap between creating art and teaching it, and affirming the enduring value of nurturing artistic talent. Arthur Lismer died of natural causes at the age of 83.

Frederick Horsman Varley - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

Frederick Varley: 

Frederick Horsman Varley, born on January 2, 1881, in Sheffield, England, embarked on a journey that would solidify his place in the annals of Canadian art history. A founding member of the Group of Seven, Varley is best known for his significant contribution to transforming the Canadian landscape into a subject of profound artistic inquiry. However, his artistic repertoire extended far beyond the confines of landscape painting to include portraiture and explorations of the human psyche. This shift was not merely a stylistic one but deeply rooted in Varley’s personal experiences and struggles.

Throughout his life, Varley grappled with financial instability and personal tumult, which deeply influenced his artistic focus and output. Unlike many of his contemporaries who primarily concentrated on the wilderness of Canada, Varley was captivated by the human face and spirit. His portraits are renowned for their ability to capture the essence and emotion of the subject, a testament to his keen observation and empathy towards human experiences. His work “Vera,” painted in 1931, is often cited as a masterpiece of Canadian portraiture, showcasing his exceptional skill in capturing emotional depth and complexity.

Varley’s artistic journey was also marked by his role as an educator. He taught at several institutions, including the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design) and the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), where he influenced generations of artists with his passionate teachings and profound understanding of art’s emotional and expressive power.

Despite the challenges he faced, Varley’s oeuvre includes over 1000 works, a testament to his prolific nature and dedication to his craft. His landscapes and portraits alike are celebrated for their emotional intensity and psychological depth, contributing to our understanding of Canada’s artistic heritage and the human condition. Frederick Varley passed away on September 8, 1969, leaving behind a legacy that continues to resonate within the art world and beyond, commemorating a life that was as complex and profound as the art he created. Frederick Varley passed away from natural causes at the age of 87.

Franklin Carmichael - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

Franklin Carmichael: 

Franklin Carmichael, born on May 4, 1890, in Orillia, Ontario, was a pivotal figure in the Canadian art scene, known for his fresh and vibrant interpretations of the Canadian landscape. As the youngest founding member of the Group of Seven, Carmichael brought a youthful exuberance and a unique perspective to the collective, helping to redefine Canadian art in the early 20th century. Throughout his career, Carmichael demonstrated a profound versatility, mastering not only watercolour but also oil, and employing a variety of styles that ranged from impressionism to more structured, almost graphical approaches.

Carmichael’s artistic journey was marked by a relentless pursuit of beauty in the Canadian wilderness, capturing the subtleties of light and colour with a delicate precision that became his trademark. His affinity for watercolour led him to become a founding member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour in 1925, where he advocated for the medium’s recognition and its potential to convey the nuanced textures of the Canadian landscape. This was a testament to his belief in the importance of evolving one’s style and medium to fully capture the essence of a subject.

Over his career, Franklin Carmichael produced hundreds of works, including iconic paintings such as “Autumn in Orillia,” “Mirror Lake,” and “October Gold,” which are celebrated for their vibrant colours and dynamic compositions. These works, among others, contribute to Carmichael’s legacy as a master of landscape painting, capable of conveying the majestic beauty of Canada’s natural environments in a way that resonates with viewers even today. The exact number of paintings Franklin Carmichael created over his career is not easily quantified as public records do not specify a total count.

Franklin Carmichael’s contribution to Canadian art extended beyond his paintings. He was also an influential teacher at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), where he mentored the next generation of artists, passing on his passion for the Canadian landscape and the importance of innovation in art. Carmichael’s legacy is preserved not only in his artworks but also in his impact on Canadian art education and the promotion of watercolour as a legitimate and expressive medium.

Franklin Carmichael passed away on October 24, 1945, in Toronto, Ontario, but his work continues to inspire and captivate art enthusiasts and professionals alike. Through his pioneering spirit and dedication to exploring the vastness of Canada’s landscapes, Carmichael has secured his place as a cornerstone of Canadian art history, celebrated for his ability to capture the ephemeral beauty of nature with grace and finesse. Franklin Carmichael died of a heart attack at the age of 55.

Frank Johnston - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

Frank Johnston:

Frank Johnston and later adopting the name Franz Johnston, was a pivotal figure in Canadian art, despite his relatively short tenure with the Group of Seven. Born on June 19, 1888, in Toronto, Ontario, Johnston’s artistic journey began at an early age, leading him to study at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design. His career took a significant turn when he became one of the founding members of the Group of Seven in 1920, a collective that aimed to capture the raw, untamed beauty of Canada’s landscapes through their art.

Johnston’s affiliation with the Group of Seven, however, lasted only a few years; he officially left in 1924 to explore his own artistic endeavours. Adopting the name Franz Johnston, he sought inspiration beyond the group’s focus on landscapes, expanding his repertoire to include cityscapes, floral studies, and the northern lights, displaying a versatility that set him apart from his contemporaries.

Johnston’s work is renowned for its use of vibrant colour and dynamic energy, qualities that breathe life into his paintings and distinguish his style. Throughout his career, he produced a significant body of work, with hundreds of paintings that capture the diverse beauty of Canada, from the serene lakes of Ontario to the bustling streets of Toronto.

Franz Johnston’s contribution to Canadian art extends beyond his paintings; he also served as a teacher at the Winnipeg School of Art and the Ontario College of Art, influencing generations of Canadian artists. His legacy is a testament to his passion for exploring and capturing the essence of his homeland in his art.

Johnston passed away on July 19, 1949, in Toronto, but his work continues to be celebrated for its impact on Canadian art. His paintings are held in numerous public and private collections across the country, serving as enduring reminders of his talent and his unique approach to capturing the beauty of Canada. The exact number of paintings or artwork he produced has not been specified in text. Frank Johnston died from natural causes at the age of 61.

Emily Carr - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

Emily Carr: 

Emily Carr, born on December 13, 1871, in Victoria, British Columbia, emerged as a towering figure in Canadian art, distinguishing herself from her contemporaries with her unique portrayal of the natural landscape and Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Although she was never formally part of the Group of Seven, her bold, modernist style and profound appreciation for the Canadian wilderness and Indigenous themes created a spiritual and artistic kinship with the group. Carr’s extensive body of work, which includes hundreds of paintings, is celebrated for its vibrant, dynamic representations of the untamed landscapes and totem poles that symbolize the rich cultural heritage of Indigenous communities.

Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and their contemporaries were deeply immersed in the revolutionary movements of cubism and fauvism in Paris, yet she remained unaffected by these avant-garde styles. Instead, she cultivated a distinctive, vibrant style deeply rooted in post-impressionism. In 1912, she made her way back to Victoria, continuing to evolve her unique approach to painting. After a period of study in Europe, Carr returned to Canada, bringing with her a modernist sensibility that she would infuse into her depictions of the Canadian landscape. Despite facing periods of obscurity and struggling with societal constraints on women in the arts, Carr’s perseverance paid off. Her pivotal exhibition with the Group of Seven in 1927 marked a turning point, garnering her national recognition and solidifying her place in Canada’s art history.

Carr’s work went beyond painting; she was also a prolific writer. Her books, including “Klee Wyck,” which won the Governor General’s Award, offer insightful reflections on her life, art, and the deep connections she formed with Indigenous communities. Emily Carr passed away on March 2, 1945, but her legacy lives on. Her profound impact on Canadian art is preserved in national collections, including the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery, ensuring that her vision of a deeply spiritual and wildly beautiful Canada continues to inspire and captivate audiences. Through her pioneering spirit and profound body of work, Emily Carr remains an enduring symbol of Canadian identity and artistic innovation.

The Group of Seven and Emily Carr charted new territories in Canadian art, each taking a unique path but collectively contributing to the country’s artistic heritage. Their stories, interwoven with the landscapes they loved, continue to resonate with artists, scholars, and enthusiasts. As we trace their journeys, we not only uncover the rich tapestry of Canada’s art history but also find inspiration for our own creative explorations. Emily Carr passed away due to a heart attack, compounded by other health issues, at the age of 73.

Tom Thomson - Canadian artist renowned for Canadian paintings and artwork

Tom Thomson

Tom Thomson, often considered an honorary member of the Group of Seven due to his profound influence on Canadian art, remains one of Canada’s most iconic and beloved figures in landscape painting. Born on August 5, 1877, in Claremont, Ontario, Thomson’s work primarily focused on the Canadian wilderness, particularly Algonquin Park, where he served as a guide and ranger. His deep connection to the land is evident in his vibrant and dynamic interpretations of nature, which continue to captivate audiences today.

Thomson’s artistic career, though brief, was remarkably impactful. In less than a decade of serious painting, he produced approximately 400 oil sketches on small wood panels and around 50 larger canvases. These works are celebrated for their bold coloration, vigorous brushwork, and innovative depiction of the Canadian landscape. His masterpiece, “The Jack Pine” (1916-1917), and “The West Wind” (1916-1917) are emblematic of his ability to convey the spirit and essence of Canada’s wilderness with emotional depth and atmospheric beauty.

Tragically, Thomson’s life was cut short when he died under mysterious circumstances on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park on July 8, 1917, at the age of 39. Despite his premature death, Thomson’s legacy has continued to grow. He has been a significant figure in shaping the identity of Canadian art, influencing not only the Group of Seven but also generations of artists who followed. His deep reverence for Canada’s landscapes and his innovative artistic techniques have solidified his status as a pioneering figure in Canadian art history, leaving an indelible mark on the country’s cultural landscape.

Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley (not a member), Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald. Image ca. 1920, F 1066, Archives of Ontario, I0010313
Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley (not a member), Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald. Image ca. 1920, F 1066, Archives of Ontario, I0010313

I invite you to join me on a profound journey into the legacies of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, encouraging a deeper engagement with their lives and artworks through exhibitions, collections, and publications both in Canada and around the world. Their lasting influence stands as a poignant testament to the power of art in capturing the essence of a nation’s landscape and soul.

As someone deeply fascinated by the intertwining of human lives, art, and history, immersing myself in the stories of these iconic artists feels like more than just an intellectual endeavour — it’s a voyage into a part of Canadian artistic identity. Their collective legacy, illuminated through vibrant and enduring works, opens a window for me into a rich tapestry of cultural expression. It ensures that the essence of their creativity lives on, inspiring not just myself but future generations as well. This journey is a personal tribute to their lasting spirit, a reminder that art transcends time, connecting us to the past while paving the way forward.

If you’re looking for more see works by, details or want to dive deeper into the stories of the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, and Emily Carr, here are some extra resources that might interest you:

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