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There is nothing like a good murder mystery

Caravaggio killed a man in a sword fight and went on the run wanted for murder. He himself died in mysterious circumstances on a beach near Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast as he headed back to Rome to beg for a pardon.  Richard Dadd, painter of the ‘Fairy Fellers Master-stroke’  murdered his father and was committed to Bethlam for the rest of his life. Carl Andre was charged with the second-degree murder of his wife who fell from the 34th window of their apartment building but he was later acquitted. Tom Thompson, inspirational leader of the Group of Seven who painted the Canadian Wilderness, was murdered it is thought by an unknown assailant on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, Canada.

Tom Thompson - Open Water, ,Joe Creek 1914

The Dulwich Picture Gallery continues its series of small exhibitions of American painters with this the first exhibition in this country of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
The first decade of the 20th Century saw artists experiment with the physicality of paint and its expressive use of colour as a means to express emotion. Europe was the hub of the art world and students from every civilised country flocked to the ateliers of Paris and Antwerp to learn of the new developments and theories being formed in these great centres of creativity.  Canadian artists were no exception and back at home they were eager to try out their new techniques and forge their own identities on what was the unique aspect of their country, the vast Canadian Wilderness.
Alec Jackson - St Fidele 1930

Tom Thompson was the inspiration of the group. Originally a commercial artist he was inspired by the landscape of Algonquin Park and thrived on the hiking, climbing, camping and canoeing that was necessary to explore the areas and create the images that would define Canadian painting. On these trips he would paint small-scale sketches that fitted into his painting box and these would then be turned into larger paintings when he returned to Toronto.   In the show there are his two best known paintings – The West Wind 1916/17 and ‘The Jack Pine ‘1916.
These pictures are as important to Canadians as a Constable picture is to the English and coincidentally or not, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is showing at the same time the RA’s sketch for ‘The Leaping Horse’ as part of their Masterpiece a Month Scheme.  Both of Thompson’s pictures are large-scale strongly coloured works, which work well from a distance but lose out on the intimacy and direct response of the smaller rapid sketches and it is these small intimate works done directly from nature that are the stars of the show.  His ‘Open Water, Joe Creek’ 1914 is a good example of this direct approach filled with the vitality of a first impression of the scene.
Arthur Lismer - Evening Silhouette 1928

Other members of the group include Jim McDonald, Alec Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varly, Frank Carmichael and Lauren Harris.  Inspired by Thomson’s example they also completed sketches on their painting trips and again it is these smaller scaled works that shine out in the Dulwich exhibition. Jim McDonald’s ‘October Shower Gleam ‘1920 and Alex Jackson’s ‘St Fidele’1930 shows this intensity of approach and the range of subject matter realised.
The group’s landscapes helped define the Canadian identity but of course they went on to work in different directions, some towards portraiture, others such as Lauren Harris (who was interested in Theosophy) towards the spiritual element in nature and through simplifying his shapes and colours.  He eventually turned to abstraction after 1933. His art deco stylisation at times can be hard to take, but ‘Isolation Peak’ 1930 is a good example of what he could achieve.
In Arthur Lismer, the longest surviving member of the group, who originally came from Sheffield, I discovered a personal connection.  One of his students Len Fligel, moved to Scotland and was the art teacher at the school I attended. The teachings of the group of seven were sympathetic to the Scottish colourist tradition.  In Lismer’s   ‘Evening Silhouette’ 1928, we see a good example of the elemental yet colourful depiction of the area around Georgian Bay.
Lawren Harris- Isolation Peak 1930

Thompson disappeared on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park in July 1917, his body discovered eight days later with fishing line tied around his leg and with a head injury. Speculation persists that a neighbour murdered him over a dispute. The body was hastily buried without an autopsy and two days later exhumed by his relatives for reburial. The mystery of what actually happened persists to this day.
Whatever the truth of the matter however, his paintings continue to inspire succeeding generations.  The Canadian artist Emily Carr is a painter to look out for and if you have ever wonder where Peter Doig ‘s inspiration came from, perhaps we need look no further than his illustrious predecessors who helped define the National Identity of Canada – Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
James Cowan, OCA Art tutor

Posted by author: Jim
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10 thoughts on “There is nothing like a good murder mystery

  • Having camped in Algonquin Park many times and seeing how the Group of Seven interpreted the beautiful landscape there, I urge students to view their work if they can. These pictures are the very reason that I am now learning to paint with with the OCA.
    The colours will blow your mind!

  • Wow you never say to a Canadian . Are you American. Interesting story, would Make a nice film. amazes me how some are fated with such dramatic life style.
    yet still endeavour to make their mark on the world with such beauty as this Art.

  • A great alternative account of Canadian art in its early years – if you can ever find it – is Barry Lord’s: History of Painting in Canada; Towards a people’s art (1974). Barry dug all his materials out of the discards in the basements of galleries and museums across the country. Still a very telling book about what it takes as an artist and as an art historian. John Drew.

  • I went to see the exhibition last weekend and agree with what you say about the works. It is the best exhibition I have seen in a long while. Very inspirational.
    However, on a slightly ‘picky’ note I have to say, sorry Jim, one of your facts is incorrect – it was Fred Varley, not Lismer that hailed from the fair English city of Sheffield

  • I saw the group of Seven when I was in Toronto several years ago and am planning to get to Dulwich in a couple of weeks. Interesting to hear they were sympathetic to the Scottish colourist tradition. I think it’s the northern light. I was in Toronto shortly after being in Finland, Sweden and Norway and there is definitely something linking these places and Canada – birch trees, lakes and snow if nothing else.

  • I am a Canadian living in Scotland. I have looked to the group of 7 to inspire me for over 30 years. I try to paint in the style of Tom Thomson.
    I introduced my HNC class to his art and did a major on his life a few years ago.
    I’m not going to get to London to see the show but would like to “chat” with others on an idea sharing basis about the group’s work, if any are interested.

    • Have a look at
      We created this companion website to our film West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson.
      There are many high rez scans of his paintings which you should enjoy.

  • It’s their sheer simplisity of style that makes them so enjoyable to look at. Thompson and Lismer certainly knew the value of minimising their brushwork, contrasts and colour. I agree with Liz Cashdan on November 25, 2011 I am a Scot, have visited both Canada and Norway.

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