Thomson came from Scots Canadian stock. Born in the town of Claremont in PICKERING Township, Ont, the 6th of 10 children, he grew up in Leith on a farm near Owen Sound. His father was something of a naturalist; a cousin, Dr. William Brodie, 9 years older than his father, was one of the finest naturalists of the day (from 1903 until his death in 1909, he was director of the Biological Department of what is today the ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM). Thomson collected specimens with Dr. Brodie, who gave him the rudiments of a naturalist's training. From Brodie, Thomson learned how to combine keen and enthusiastic observation of nature with a sense of reverence for its mystery.
Brought up in a creative family, Thomson learned to play several instruments, among them the mandolin. He also learned to draw and paint. As a young man, having missed high school through illness, he enrolled in the Canada Business College in CHATHAM (he is listed in the city directory in 1902), then attended the Acme Business College in Seattle in 1903, a school run by his eldest brother George and a friend, F.R. McLaren. In both schools, he excelled in penmanship.
In Seattle, Thomson got his first job with a commercial art company. It was as an engraver with a firm run by C.C. Maring, one of the graduates of the Chatham Business College. He worked briefly for Maring & Ladd (which became Maring & Blake soon after he arrived due to a change in ownership), then was hired by their strongest competitor, the Seattle Engraving Company, at an increase of 10 dollars a week. He doubtless looked forward to a career in Seattle, probably wanting to settle down, advance in his trade and marry as his brother Ralph did in 1906. That he did not was likely the result of an incident involving Alice Elinor Lambert, 8 or 9 years his junior, to whom he proposed. At the crucial moment the effervescent Miss Lambert nervously giggled, causing the very sensitive Thomson to abandon his matrimonial ambitions and leave for Toronto. It was on his return from Seattle that he decided to become an artist.
In terms of his development as a painter, Thomson's experience to this point was primarily of an amateur and traditional sort. In order to become a professional artist he had to overcome many obstacles, among them his lack of knowledge of the technical side of art. This situation began to change with his enrolment in 1906 in night school at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design, as well as by 1908 through his contact with a lively group of comrades at Grip Limited, a well-known commercial art firm.
When Thomson joined Grip the company was at an ambitious stage of its development. It had a good art director, A.H. Robson, and a painter, J.E.H. MACDONALD, who was the anchor of the design team. Thomson worked with MacDonald, and it was under his tutelage and encouragement that Thomson's genius began to flower. He submitted his work at the firm to MacDonald for criticism, and brought the sketches that he painted on the weekends to MacDonald and others at the firm. MacDonald and men such as Robson, a member of the Toronto Art Students' League (see ARTISTS' ORGANIZATIONS), praised the truth to nature in Thomson's work.
In 1911 Thomson embarked on a camping trip to the Mississagi Forest Reserve. Upon his return he was told by his friends at Grip that his sketches made during this trip expressed a real sense of the northern character. The next year he returned to Rous & Mann Limited (the firm to which Robson, and then all of them, had moved in 1912), bringing with him works that he had painted that year on a fishing trip to Algonquin Park. These sketches of 1912 showed a tremendous advance and marked his real start as an artist. The key to their interest lay in their vision of an area of wilderness expanse, a great world that seemed untrodden by the foot of man. They revealed a particular kind of sensibility, a way of portraying the natural world as a poetical synthesis informed by a direct experience of the landscape. To develop his first major painting, A Northern Lake (1913), today in the collection of the ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, he selected one of the sketches he'd done on the trip and transformed it into a picture with greater depth in the foreground. This way of working from on-the-spot sketch to finished studio painting became his common practice. Within his oeuvre, these 2 modes of working reveal contrasting sides of his artistic personality: the sketch with its vivacity and on-the-spot reportage recalls the spontaneity of the lyric poem; the canvas created in the studio has evolved into an epic poem with effects selected from such styles of the day as Art Nouveau and Post-Impressionism.
In the autumn of 1914 Thomson and his friends A.Y. Jackson, Arthur LISMER and Frederick VARLEY camped in Algonquin Park. By now the artist was transposing, eliminating, and applying design to his work to evolve his conception of a particular kind of landscape art. Eventually it would become the basis for a style that would bring national prominence to the Group of Seven (the name designating the group thought up by Lismer in 1920), a movement that blended a growing Canadian consciousness with the theme of landscape in paint. Thomson had informally discussed his ideas about this new approach to landscape with MacDonald, and also with Lawren Harris, who by 1916 had become his mentor. Harris's contribution was later acknowledged by members of the Group of Seven; however, he has not been accorded the wider recognition that he deserves for the Group's conception.
Thomson died in 1917, leaving behind about 50 canvases and over 300 sketches. The circumstances surrounding his death have become a staple of writers, amateur sleuths and serious scholars. An article in 1977 in the Toronto Star by Roy MacGregor suggests that Thomson was murdered by Shannon Fraser and that Annie Fraser, the murderer's wife, told the story to friends. Such evidence as we have is conflicting and perplexing. Undoubtedly, it was an accident and we will never be sure of the exact circumstances.
An examination of Thomson's oeuvre reveals how quickly he came into his own: an amateur artist, he found his very distinctive path by 1914. Nature was clearly his touchstone, and throughout his career he turned to it as his muse. His method was to capture transient moments of light and atmosphere by sketching quickly in oil from nature, sometimes developing these sketches into full-blown encomiums to the land. His evolution was toward relaxed, brilliant handling of paint; at his best he disposed trees and bushes in his paintings like notes in a finely phrased tune, creating patterns that interlocked in intricate counterpoint.
Music was a connection with paint (he told a friend that "Imperfect notes destroy the soul of music. So does imperfect colour destroy the soul of the canvas"), and it isn't a big leap to see in his design a correlation to musical intervals, contributing a sort of rhythm, touch and tone to his paintings. Most engaging for the viewer are his bold use of colour and his sense of spectacle channelled through an experience of northern nature. Although few people are shown, the views that he painted, which sometimes resemble shelters and shrines, suggest places where people can meditate in quiet.
His paintings The West Wind and Jack Pine present a similar motif of a tree or trees on a rocky shore that conveys a sense of iconic grandeur. Thomson's pictures, with their rich colours, often have a sense of movement, of dynamism and drive. His best-looking paintings to contemporary viewers are his lively sketches with their strong forms. Executed in a palette of red, pink, brown, light and dark blue, with a finesse suited to a naturalist, Thomson's paintings embody a truly national vision.
Author JOAN MURRAY
Links to Other Sites
RiverBrink Art Museum
The website for the RiverBrink Art Museum, located in the historic village of Queenston, within the picturesque town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The museum produces exhibitions featuring artworks from their Samuel E. Weir collection and other Canadian and international museums. Click on "Collections" to view images of featured artifacts.