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Legendary Canadian artist Tom Thomson remembered at Canoe Lake

January 2021

Tom Thomson was a Canadian artist, considered one of the most important and influential Canadian artists, known for the landscape paintings depicting the beauty of Ontario that he painted during his short life.

An avid outdoorsman, Thomson produced around 400 oil sketches on small wood panels and around an additional 50 on canvas, depicting the trees, skis, lakes and rivers of Ontario. His painting style made use of broad brush strokes, vivid colours and thickly applied paint.

Born in Claremont, 20 miles north-east of Toronto, Ontario, on 5 August 1877, and raised in Leith, near Owen Sound, he didn’t initially seem to be destined to become one of Canada’s most celebrated artists.

Thomson originally attended the Canadian Business College in Chatham, Ontario, before obtaining work as a pen artist for several different photoengraving firms.

It was while working at Grip Ltd., a design firm in Toronto, that he met the men who would go on to form the Group of Seven, including J.E.H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Arthur Lismer.

The Group of Seven were a collective of Canadian landscape painters, whose paintings are still displayed in the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Tom Thomson Art Gallery and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Although Thomson died before its official formation in 1920, Thomson was a significant influence on the group. He is considered an unofficial member, and his work is usually displayed alongside the work of other Group of Seven members.

In May 1912, Thomson visited Algonquin Park, a 3000 square mile wilderness park in south-central Ontario, for the first time. He was captivated by the stunning, natural beauty of the landscape, and using his first set of sketching equipment, he drew his first set of artworks.

Over the last years of his life, Thomson would spend most of his time in Algonquin Park, returning to Toronto in the winter months. When he wasn’t camping in the park, he would stay at Mowat Lodge, a small hotel in the tiny community of Mowat, at the north end of Canoe Lake. 

Tragically, Thomson’s life came to an end on 8 July 1917, when he drowned while canoeing on Canoe Lake, a lake located in the south-west corner of Algonquin Park.

While Thomson’s death was ruled accidental, it remains controversial, with some believing his death was either a murder or a suicide. His body was recovered 8 days after he went missing, and was buried in Leith United Church Cemetery.

In his memory, the Tom Thomson Art Gallery was established in Owen Sound in 1959, by the Grey County Historical and Art Society in the basement of a former church.

A new, larger gallery was built atop the original basement structure in 1967. Re-named the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, the collection has grown to include works by members of the Group of Seven, and by regional and nationally recognized artists. 

A cairn and totem pole dedicated to Tom Thomson can be found at the north end of Canoe Lake, near one of his favourite camping spots.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Thomson, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canoe_Lake_(Nipissing_District), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_of_Seven_(artists), https://www.owensound.ca/en/tomthomson.aspx#, https://dragonquillca.wordpress.com/2019/10/21/mowat-ontario-ghost-town-connected-to-possible-murder.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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