In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Guest Posting -- Adrian Hyland | Main | Snapshot of the Times -- Kodak »

September 25, 2003

Virtues of Localism: Group of Seven


As you hopefully remember, I wrote here about how misleading the notion has been that Modern Art has been a thoroughly international, de-contextualized exercise. To illustrate my contention, in another post (which you can read here) I showed how Picasso’s painting “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” derived from the religious, social and even military realities of France in his day. Well, a genius such as Picasso can be seen as a sort of permanent exception to every rule, so I thought I’d illustrate the virtues of localism in art—especially in Modern Art—with a more everyday example: the Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven. Before I get to their paintings, however, I want to sketch in some of the political, economic and geographic background and how it impacted the evolution of Canadian art.

Although Canada’s history goes back many centuries, its "national consciousness" is quite a recent phenomenon. Beginning only in 1867 (when the British glued together the previously separate colonies of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, & Nova Scotia and called them “the Dominion of Canada”), the new country expanded across the continent, signing on other British colonies as provinces. Manitoba, for example, came on board in 1870 and British Columbia in 1871, although thereafter the process slowed down; Alberta and Saskatchewan dragged their feet until 1905.

During this first generation of nation-building, Canadian politics were an east-west matter but Canadian culture was oriented southward. This was, in part, a consequence of transportation: for much of the 19th century Canadians often found it easier to get to the U.S. than to other parts of Canada. As Dennis Reid remarks in his essay, “Impressionism in Canada,” during this era Canadians found it natural to express their national ambitions by borrowing the monumental landscape tradition developed by the American Hudson Valley School:

…Canadian art was dominated by artists in the two principal cities of Montreal and Toronto who, following confederation some fifteen years before, had been systematically exploring the new national landscape. Their detailed, heroically scaled pictures, inspired by the work of recent British artists in the thrall of John Ruskin’s dictum of truth to nature and influenced as well by [American] luminist painters and Albert Bierstadt…embodied the optimistic expansionism of the age.
L. O'Brien, Sunrise on the Saguenay, 1880

The Canadian Pacific Railway, finished—after a slow start—in 1886, finally provided a physical link for the new nation. The impact of the railroad on the Canadian art scene was intense:

[The heroic landscape’s popularity peaked] in the years following the opening of the transcontinental railway in 1886—more than a third of the Art Association of Montreal’s annual spring exhibition of 1888 consisted of scenes of the newly accessible Rocky Mountains and West Coast…
J. A. Fraser, The Sun's Last Kiss On The Crest of Mt. Stephen, British Columbia, 1886

The draw of America (economically and culturally) also rose to new heights in the 1880s as the Canadian economy fell into the doldrums. Large numbers of Canadians, particularly from English-speaking Ontario, migrated south of the border. There was much talk of "depopulation"—things seem to have gotten pretty serious. There was even open public consideration of giving up on the whole notion of Canada (only a couple decades old, after all) and of Canadians throwing in their lot with the States.

However, the U.S. wasn't very welcoming, and in fact passed high tariffs that kept out Canadian wheat and other products during the 1890s. This rebuff, combined with the return of prosperity during the 1890s, the success of Canadian exports in European markets, and increased immigration (numbers rose continually until the First World War), re-oriented Canadians culturally and economically across the Atlantic. A period began in which “international” culture dominated Canada, with the inevitable consequence of the country becoming redefined, artistically speaking, as a provincial backwater. According to Mr. Reid:

Every serious young artist in Canada aspired to study in Paris, and by the early 1890s they all did. The effect on Canadian painting was swift and decisive. By 1895 monumental figure painting in the French manner essentially replaced the national landscape in the exhibitions…
F. Carlyle, The Tiff, 1902

However, new social and economic trends began to take hold around the turn of the century. As the economic expansion of the 1890s and migration to the western prairies continued, it dawned on the Canadians that one rail line linking their East and West coasts (and running along the U.S. border) wasn't going to cut the mustard. So they built the Canadian Northern across the Canadian Shield and linked it to the more southerly Canadian Pacific with a series of north-south railroads. In so doing, they opened up (for the first time) Canada's "northern" frontier to economic exploitation--mostly in the form of resource extraction, i.e., mining and forestry.

Canadian Shield Landscape

As a result, Canadians began to culturally encounter their northern frontier for the first time in their history. The apparently universal human instinct to not care about something until one feels it slipping away seems to be applicable here--it was the very presence of industry that made people begin to take the north country seriously as an aesthetic phenomenon. And this amounted to a revolution, of sorts, in the consciousness of the new nation; after all, most of the population of Canada had been (and remains) in the "triangle" that juts down into the U.S. between New York and Michigan. The rest of the country, especially prior to 1900 and the expansion of the rail network, must have seemed to Canadians a sort of mysterious, empty wasteland stretching away into the arctic, best not thought about to keep from getting geographic vertigo. Now they began to see it not only as possessing its own beauty, but as having importance to their lives.

This was reinforced during the first decade or two of the 20th century by rise of motorcars and road transportation. Tourism through the northern "outback" (at this time, along roads no more than 100 miles north of Toronto) increased. American popular culture—flowing northward along highways from the States—loosened the Canadian-European cultural bond forged in the 1890s. The growing use of automobile transport also had a revolutionary effect on places like Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park (larger in area than Rhode Island or Delaware). This had been set aside as a way of declaring the region off-limits to agriculture in 1893 to preserve the watersheds of multiple rivers originating within the park’s borders. As motor traffic increased, the park suddenly seemed to be more than just a water-quality-management project; it became a haven, a place where the primordial northern Canadian "wilderness" had been preserved.

The automobile was a symbol of the quickening pace of Canadian economic life in the new century. Appropriately, therefore, the seed from which a new national school of painting would develop was a commercial art studio in Toronto called Grip, Ltd. Its head designer in the years around 1910 was J. E. H. MacDonald, an enthusiastic weekend painter and poet. He led staff artists Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Franz Johnson (all future Group of Seven members) on sketching trips to the countryside around Toronto. MacDonald also became good friends with a rich young man and aspiring painter, Lawren Harris, who had recently returned from a four-year sojourn in Europe.

MacDonald and Harris were committed to the notion of a truly “Canadian” style of modern art. They were terrifically impressed by the authentic Canadian-ness of a canvas, “The Edge of the Maple Wood,” produced by a young artist from Montreal, A. Y. Jackson.

A. Y. Jackson, The Edge of the Maple Wood, 1910

They were so impressed, in fact, that they wrote him and invited him to come to seek his fortune in Toronto. (When Harris went beyond warm words and actually bought the canvas, Jackson decided they were for real and came to Toronto.)

The difficulty in realizing MacDonald and Harris’ dreams of a national school of Canadian painting was that this embryonic group—a gaggle of Sunday painters and one rich kid—had spent their energies up until that point struggling to engage modern French styles of painting. (Of course, their ability to do so was—perhaps usefully—hampered by living thousands of miles away from Paris.) A. Y. Jackson had spent a year in Europe and was working in an Impressionist vein. Harris (always the most formally inclined of the group) was working his way into artistic territory that recalled both Gauguin and Seurat.

MacDonald’s efforts seem to have had Van Gogh’s painting as their point of origin. And together Harris and MacDonald visited an exhibition of Scandinavian painting held in Buffalo that showed how the Swedes and Norwegians were progressing in applying the tools of French post-Impressionism to their own national subject matter.

K. Nordstrom, Kyrkesund, 1911

But Harris and MacDonald’s problem wasn’t one of style, per se, so no new style could solve it. What they lacked was subject matter that would engage their countrymen.

The man who offered a solution to that puzzle was another graphic artist at Grip Ltd., Tom Thomson. Thomson was a one-time farm boy who had grown up in Owen Sound on the shores of Georgian Bay (the eastern lobe of Lake Huron), hunting, fishing and canoeing.

T. Thomson, Stamps Promoting Owen Sound, 1904

Falling into a career of photoengraving and commercial art on a trip to the American Pacific Northwest, he had stayed in the field when he moved to Toronto in 1907. No artistic prodigy, he had only begun painting at the age of 34 in 1911, the same year that Harris met MacDonald. What Thomson contributed wasn’t a refined style, but something better: an enthusiasm.

In the spring and summer of 1912, Thomson made several trips into northern Ontario, paddling in Algonquin Park and through the Mississauga Forest Reserve, west of Sudbury, Ontario. He fell in love with the countryside, which was of course similar to the Canadian shield terrain of his boyhood. And the oil sketches that he brought back from the north country fired the creative spirits of his colleagues.

T. Thomson, Northland Sunset; T. Thomson, Burnt Country

They could sense his emotional connection with what he was painting. According to a website on his life (which you can see here) this connection wasn’t hard to see:

One day, Tom went in to work at Grip Ltd. carrying a new paddle. He filled a photoengraver's tank with water, put it beside his chair, and sat there, gently paddling. According to J.E.H. MacDonald, who also worked at Grip, "At each stroke he gave a real canoeman's twist, and his eye had a quiet gleam, as if he saw the hills and shores of Canoe Lake."

Thomson wasn’t long for Grip, Ltd. By 1914, he was spending his summers at Algonquin Park, painting and guiding tourists; during the winters, he lived in a in a renovated shack in back of an artist’s studio building in Toronto, creating finished paintings based on his oil sketches made during the preceding summer and autumn.

T. Thomson, Lightning, Canoe Lake, 1915; T. Thomson, Early Snow, 1916

Again, his lifestyle preferences were clear:

Tom's shack in Toronto resembled a northern cabin as much as possible. He had a bunk, a little cast iron range for heat and cooking, canoe paddles and axes in the corners, and trolling spoons and lures hanging from the walls.

In May 1914, Thomson convinced Arthur Lismer to make his first trek to Algonquin Park. In October, Thomson and Lismer returned, this time joined by A. Y. Jackson and Varley. Thomson was the “inspirational source and guide” who introduced the other future members of the Group of Seven to what would become their trademark subject matter: Canada’s ‘northern frontier.’

World War I separated the group; while many of the artists went into the army, Thomson (who was rejected for military service because of an old injury, which incensed him as he could easily walk 20 miles a day in the woods) stayed on guiding and painting at Algonquin Park. There he died in a somewhat mysterious canoing accident in 1917.

Jackson summed up the debt of himself and the other artists in their group to Thomson:

...without Tom the north country seems a desolation of bush and rock, he was the guide, the interpreter, and we the guests partaking of his hospitality so generously given. His name is so often coupled with mine in this new movement that it seemed almost like a partnership, and it was, in which I supplied the school learning and practical methods of working...while my debt to him is almost that of a new world, the north country, and a truer artist’s vision…

Immediately after their discharges from the army, the band of artists made several sketching trips (in a rented railroad boxcar which) to the far more “uncivilized” Algoma region north of Lake Superior. After several of these Algoma trips that the artists decided to organize an exhibition as the Group of Seven. Although not met with instant approbation, they continued to exhibit for the next decade and were recognized as the first truly national school of Canadian painting.

Following is a selection of their work:

L. Harris, Silent Land, 1920; L. Harris, Afternoon Sun, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1924
A. Y. Jackson, The Red Maple, 1914; A. Lismer, Isle of Spruce
F. Johnson, Sunset in the Bush, c. 1918; J. E. H. MacDonald, The Tangled Garden, 1916

Unlike the next generation or two of Modern Artists in America, these Canadians had no ambitions toward trying to take over the management of Modern Art, Inc. from the French; their only intention seems to have been to create a genuine response to the land in which their fellow Canadians were building a modern society. In the process, of course, they created their own unique form of Post-Impressionism. And I believe they succeeded in all this thanks in no small part to a localist attitude. As Michael Blowhard has aptly observed: “When you know you have no chance at the big time, you figure you might as well mean what you say.”

And that’s an attitude that a lot of artists could profit immensely from today.



posted by Friedrich at September 25, 2003


There's an interesting parallel in the evolution of national art in Australia - i.e. heroic landscapes in the mid-19th century modelled on British templates, followed by a French-influenced refocus on people and portraiture, followed by a reengagement with the landscape, this time emphasising its unEuropean otherness (Fred Williams, Sidney Nolan, etc.).

Posted by: Hugo on September 25, 2003 4:49 AM

I really love Jackson's "The Red Maple" a lot. So how come these guys "knew they'd never be bigtime?"

Posted by: annette on September 25, 2003 12:08 PM

Fab posting, thanks. For one thing, I'd never understood basic Canadian history before, and fascinating to see the Group o' Seven set in that context. Which of the Group's work do you like best? I guess I like Lawren Harris best, although I drag my fingers as I type the words... Why? Hmm. Oh, I guess because the Group itself is so sweet, and why not enjoy the whole thing, eh? The Wife and I visited the museum outside Toronto (am I remembering right?) devoted to them, and it was a really lovely experience. Much in the way of art pleasure, very little in the way (as you point out) of hot air -- adventurous, free, and modest all at the same time. Very pleasing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 25, 2003 12:49 PM


They knew they'd never be bigtime because they were deliberately painting for a Canadian audience, not trying to get out in front of the international Modernist bandwagon and wave the baton. I would describe their attitude as "ask what can Modernism do for my fellow countrymen, not what I can do for Modernism."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 25, 2003 2:33 PM

I'm coming to the conclusion that the 'we're never going to be big time' attitude is the healthiest one for an artist to have - you just make art you care about and fashion be damned.

Posted by: franklin on September 25, 2003 6:14 PM

Oh yeah - that J. E. H. MacDonald Tangled Garden is a knockout.

Posted by: franklin on September 25, 2003 6:16 PM


Thanks for the info on Australian painting. Possibly a similar local dynamic was at work.


I agree that JEH MacDonald's Tangled Garden is terrific; what makes it even more impressive is that I have no idea of what went on in his head while painting it. When I paint I look for material that, to some degree, organizes itself (more along the lines of Harris' Silent Land.) Whereas I can't see what patterns must have leaped out at MacDonald to draw him into Tangled Garden, although they must have been there. A great painting and a mystery, all at once!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 26, 2003 3:43 AM

There are contemporary American painters who are working along similar lines, as has been pointed out before at this site. I think some of the best with respect to landscape work include Wolf Kahn, James Winn, Tom Uttech and Yvonne Jacquette

See samples:

Kahn's work is almost abstract and has tremendous color. Winn is a midwestern romantic in the classic sense. Uttech has an enviornmentalist angle, he uses Indian names for his paintings and hints at the destruction of nature in his work. Jacquette is more of a cityscape artist and is always looking down as if she were in a plane or helicopter.

Posted by: Harry Phillips on September 27, 2003 12:36 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?