Beginnings and Developments
In the early years of the twentieth century Canadian art was tied to the academic tradition imported into the country by European emigres. Despite the fact that its spectacular wilderness was central to the country's sense of self identity, the Canadian wilderness was considered unpaintable and collectors expressed little interest in domestic landscape painting. Nor was there much appetite for European modernism amongst the public and collectors who tended to view the avant-garde with scorn. Thus, between 1911 and 1913 a group of painters forged a tight friendship born out of a shared dissatisfaction with the malaise that had gripped the Canadian art scene.
The Group of Seven included Lawren S. Harris (the Group's de-facto leader), Franklin Carmichael, Alexander Young Jackson, Frank H. Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald and Frederick Varley. An eighth man, Tom Thompson, is often linked to the group though passed away shortly before the group was officially formed. "The story of the Group of Seven", wrote Harris, "is that of seven artists who came together in a creative venture that no one of them could have carried through on his own". As it evolved, the Group of Seven welcomed into its ranks A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald. Emily Carr also forged a close affiliation with the group.
According to Jackson, it was MacDonald who was "probably the first to dream of a school of painting in Canada that would realize the wealth of motifs we had all around us". MacDonald was Head Designer at Grip Ltd., Toronto's leading commercial design studio. His colleague, Tom Thomson - an enthusiastic outdoors man - encouraged MacDonald and others among their co-workers, notably Carmichael, Varley, Lismer and Johnston, to join him on weekend sketching trips to nearby lakes.
The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto became the lively focal point for the friends to lunch together, debate artistic ideas and techniques, to critique each other's works, to arrange exhibitions and attend other cultural activities. The Club brought MacDonald into contact with Harris, who was the wealthy heir to a successful farm machinery manufacturer, and close friendships were forged. "The rest of us were struggling [financially]", Casson remembered, "and [Harris] would always do little things to help us, but he did them in a nice way". Harris was a skilled organiser whose vision, determination and patronage was crucial to the emergence of the movement. Jackson recalled later that for Harris "art was almost a mission [and] that a country which ignored the arts left no record of itself worth preserving". When the group first saw paintings by the Montreal-based painter A.Y Jackson they realized the painterly potential of the uniquely Canadian landscape and MacDonald took it upon himself to write to Jackson, persuading him to move to Toronto.
The group also made an important friend in Dr. James MacCallum, an eye doctor and ophthalmologist, who was eager to support artists who shared his love of the Canadian landscape. Carmichael wrote that MacCallum, "took a keen and sincere delight in painting, and in helping painters, [not] in a charitable way, but by giving them the chance to help themselves, which is the true help".
In the summer and fall of 1912, Thomson made his first extended trip to Algonquin Park, the vast forestry reserve north of Toronto. The experience galvanized Thompson who finessed his drawing and painting skills. Though he was soon to lose his life in a canoeing accident, Thomson was an important early influence on the group. Thompson and Jackson, as Lismer noted, were having "a detached influence on the other. Thomson was "selecting his material carefully and using a finer sense of colour" whereas for Jackson the "material [...] is more intimate and suits his aggressive soul better".
In January 1913, Harris and MacDonald travelled to the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, to attend an exhibition of Scandinavian art that included Post-Impressionist and Expressionist landscape paintings, including works by Gustaf Fjaestad and Vilhelm Hammershøi. Writing in the exhibition's catalogue, the Swedish-American critic Christian Brinton proposed a nationalistic interpretation of modern Scandinavian art, connecting the ordinary people to the land. MacDonald noted that "except in minor points, the pictures might all have been Canadian" and both he and Harris decided "this is what we want to do with Canada". The exhibition prompted Harris - who had studied art for four years in Berlin and was an enthusiast for Theosophical mysticism - to initiate a nationalist approach to landscape, as he began producing paintings through which he sought to convey his own particular response to the spiritual vibrations he felt from nature.
With a shared belief that a uniquely Canadian art style could only emerge through direct contact with its natural world, the artists carried out several expeditions together, presenting the forests and lakeshores as the true spirit of Canada. Dr. MacCallum frequently invited the artists to his cottage at Go Home Bay on Lake Huron where he would join them on their sketching trips. Early critical reaction to their work was not always positive, however. In 1913, one writer labelled them as the "Hot Mush School", whose works were "more like a gargle or gob of porridge than a work of art". An art critic for The Toronto Star even dismissed their paintings as, "a Dutch headcheese having a quarrel with a chunk of French nougat".
Conscious that most of the artists could only paint in their spare time, and in small and poorly lit quarters at that, Harris and MacCallum bought land on Severn Street in the Rosedale ravine in Toronto where they built a studio offering inexpensive studio space. Jackson and Thomson were the first to move in, followed by Harris and MacDonald. Lismer preferred to paint at home and Varley preferred to work alone. Franklin Carmichael joined the studio in the fall of 1914 with Jackson claiming that "No artist in Canada ever worked under happier conditions".
For his part, Lismer's connection with the land occurred in May 1915 during a three-week sketching trip with Thomson: "The first night spent in the North and the thrilling days after were turning points in my life [...] and above all, the companionship of a great individual, a wonder with canoe, axe and fish line".
War Years and Tragedy
The group was temporarily broken up during World War One, when Jackson and Varley became official war artists. Jackson served in France between 1915 and 1917, and was seriously injured. Harris taught musketry at Camp Borden and was discharged in May 1918 after suffering a nervous breakdown. Carmichael worked as a carriage maker and Lismer relocated to Halifax to become the principle of an art school. There he produced his famous warships series painted in dazzle camouflage. After Jackson was stationed in France, Thomson could no longer afford the studio rental on his own and moved into a small shack-cum-workshop behind the studio. He continued to spend the majority of his time in the bush working as a guide but went missing while canoeing in Algonquin Park. His untimely death devasted the group of friends.
Birth of the Group of Seven
After the war, the group reunited and recommenced their painting expeditions throughout Ontario, particularly the Muskoka and Algoma regions. Their excursions, as before, involved their working directly from nature on small birch panels, painting and drawing rapidly, especially if the weather was inclement. Finished paintings were only then worked up in the studio on their return.
With their first major exhibition looming, the group was looking for a name that both linked them and acknowledged their individualism. The common denominator was that they were a group of seven artists and so the Group of Seven was formally launched (it is thought that Harris suggested the name).
The Group was supported by Eric Brown, the director of Canada's National Gallery. In the catalogue for their first show there in May 1920, Harris stressed that for Canada to be a real home for its people, it must have its own art, free from the traditions of Europe. Two thousand people attended the show but only five paintings were sold. The critical reception was mixed. Some praised the works for the manner in which they reflected "a Canadian spirit" while others were shocked by the bold use of colour, the broad Impressionistic brush strokes, and the lack of academic precision.
Concepts and Trends
Greater public recognition for the Group of Seven coincided with a growth in nationalistic feeling following the War. Canada was beginning to shake off its identity as a colony, evolving into a new state with a national character all of its own. Any heightened sense of patriotism demanded appropriate national symbols and, in Jackson's words the Group of Seven contributed to the "voice of a nation speaking". Following their early scepticism, the public gradually became more open to art that celebrated Canada's natural beauty, and even though they were not the first Canadian nationalists, art historian J. Russell Harper made the point that the Group of Seven were "the first to make artists and public listen and observe". The Group presented themselves as outdoor adventurers; the custodians of their natural environment which tallied with a new "wilderness ethos" among Canadians. It was an ethos that resulted in the creation of national parks such as the Algonquin, and a boom in the building of lakeside cottages.
The Canadian Landscape
Until the Group of Seven, traditionally trained artists were left unmoved by the Canadian landscape. The Group offered a collective response to Canada's vast and varied countryside and its contrasting weather cycles. Harris noted how the land was "different in its air, mood, and spirit from Europe and the Old Country" adding that it "invokes a response which throws aside all preconceived ideas and rule-of-thumb reactions. It has to be seen, lived with, and painted with complete devotion to its own life and spirit before it yields its secrets". Not so much engaged with the search for naturalism, then, the Group sought to represent how the shifting landscapes of Canada touched their senses. Indeed, MacDonald stated that the Group's aim was "to paint the soul of things [...] the inner feeling rather than the outward form".
For the Group of Seven, the landscape became akin to a religion. Varley and Harris particularly venerated nature, finding God's immanence within it. From their paintings, Dr. Salem Bland, a leading liberal theologian, stated that he felt, "as if the Canadian soul was unveiling to me something secret and high and beautiful which I had never guessed; a strength and self-reliance, depth and mysticism I had not suspected". The Group's subjects were chosen for their grandeur and beauty and MacDonald told his students, "Think big, be generous, don't fiddle, enlarge yourselves". At the same time, the Group's paintings captured the Canadian wilderness in all its sublime solitude and tranquillity.
The Group of Seven referred to themselves as "adventurers in paint". Theirs was a Post-Impressionist style (Gauguin, Van Gogh and Munch were amongst the European artists they admired) that could accommodate the aesthetic inclinations of Art Nouveau. Though he was taken from them before the Group was formally constituted, Thomson was perhaps the most innovative and influential of the party, working intuitively and bringing a strength and simplicity to his paintings. Following MacDonald and Harris's introduction to Scandinavian art in 1913, meanwhile, line, colour, contour, and texture became the means by which the Group might fully expresses their absorption into the landscape. In acknowledging a debt to the Group's Scandinavian counterparts, MacDonald stated that they "seemed to be a lot of men not trying to express themselves so much as trying to express something that took hold of themselves".
He made the observation that the Scandinavians "began with nature rather than with art". It was an important distinction that meant that the Group was not beholden to a set of specific aesthetic codes and was free to experiment with animated colors, heavy impasto and expansive brush strokes. The surface patterning would thus produce a highly personal response to the "untouched" Canadian landscape that could be at once stripped back and/or dynamic. Jackson noted that one of Harris's attempts to achieve a more vibrant palette "was to drag his brush quickly through three or four colors and slap it on the canvas. Among ourselves it was known as tomato soup". In 1921, after a trip to Lake Superior's north shore, Harris simplified the colour and composition of his works, soon to be followed by MacDonald, Carmichael and Varley. The pigment was thinner and the landscape more abstracted and stylized, ethereal even, and quite similar to Art Deco graphics. By the middle of the decade, Harris's subjects were almost monochromatic, presaging the artist's move towards total abstraction.
Other Members and Affiliates
Once established, three other artists became Group members. Alfred Joseph Casson was working in Toronto as a freelance commercial designer at Rous and Mann when Carmichael took him under his wing. A superb watercolourist, Casson, with Carmichael and F.H. Brigden, founded the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour in 1925 before he accepted Carmichael's invitation to join the Group of Seven the following year.
Raised on a Manitoba farm, L.L. (Lionel LeMoine) FitzGerald developed a love for Canada's Prairies. Reflecting his deep ties to his home region, he chose simple subjects for his paintings and gained recognition for his Prairie scenes, paintings of his neighbour's backyard, and potted plants. When it disbanded in 1932, FitzGerald became one of the founding members of the Group of Seven's successors, the Canadian Group of Painters. For his part, Edwin Holgate, a childhood tutee of the Canadian Impressionist and teacher William Brymer, spent several years in Paris before returning to Canada in 1922 where he opened a design studio. Holgate's talents as a graphic artist and wood engraver soon began to attract the attention of the Group, and though perhaps better known for his portraits, Holgate painted several impressive murals including those for the famous Totem Pole Room at Ottawa's Château Laurier Hotel. In 1925, Holgate played a key role in the founding of the Canadian Society of Graphic Artists and, after the Group of Seven's demise, took up a key teaching position at the Art Association of Montreal.
Art historian Dennis Reid has noted of the Group of Seven (and notwithstanding the country's impressive contribution to the international music scene carried by figures of the lofty stature of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchel and Neil Young) that "they occupy a position in the Canadian cultural pantheon shared only with a few hockey stars and a handful of beloved politicians". Ian A.C. Dejardin, Executive Director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection wrote that "The Group of Seven not only translated what they saw into a vivid visual language of their own, but through that language they taught us to appreciate the natural beauty of Canada in all its vast scale and variety. Many Canadians continue to see the country through the Group's eyes". A 1995 National Gallery exhibition titled, The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation, also espoused the view that the Group of Seven offered "an essential Canadian identity". However, some liberal critics have questioned any national identity rooted in white, male, English-speaking painters of European descent whose romanticised engagement with the outdoors paid no attention to its First Nations People (nor, indeed, any people at all).
Foremost among the significant Canadian artists to be influenced by the group was Emily Carr. On her way to Ottawa for the 1927 exhibition Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern - in which she showed 26 of her works - she met Varley, Lismer, Jackson, MacDonald and Harris, who re-energized her pursuit of a unique artistic vision. Her response to seeing their paintings was, "Oh, God! What have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world, Chords way down in my being have been touched". Other artists who came under the influence of the Group of Seven was their contemporary, the printmaker David Milne, a man described by art critic Clement Greenberg as one of the three greatest North American artists of his generation. The Canadian abstract painter Jack Bush began his career painting landscapes inspired by the Group of Seven, while the Scottish painter Peter Doig (a long-time resident of Canada) drew much of the inspiration for his paintings from the Canadian landscape and the Group's legacy.
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 01 Feb 2021. Updated and modified regularly