Growing up in California, the only autumn leaves I knew, were those in the paper borders around pin boards at school. I never saw the amazing gold, orange, and red leaves of autumn that I now get a chance to experience in person every October. Occasionally, when leafing through art books from the family bookshelves, I would experience autumnal brilliance through the eyes of the likes of The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.
The above painting, The Jack Pine (1916), illustrates why I think Tom Thomson is a master of Autumn. His ability to capture the colours and textures of Fall is irreproachable.
“…the maples are about all stripped of leaves but the birches are very rich in colour. We are all working away but the best I can do does not do the place much justice in the way of beauty.”
(from a letter to Dr. MacCallum, Thomson’s patron, from Thomson at Camp Mowat, on October 6, 1914)
Tom Thomson was born on a farm in rural Ontario. As a young man, Thomson was deemed medically unfit to enlist for The Boer War and later in the First World War. Instead, he dabbled as a Foundry machinist, attended business college, worked in the field of commercial art doing lettering and engraving, as well as working in photo engraving. It was working with the firm Grip Ltd., a prominent Toronto photograph engraving studio, that Thomson met J.E.H. MacDonald (his boss and mentor), Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, and Franklin Carmichael (studio mates), who would later come together with others to become The Group of Seven.
With the stability of a job, a group of mutually inspired friends, and desire to escape the city, Thomson began to spend more and more time in wilds of Ontario. Thomson would paint on location, painting on small letter sized papers, capturing the magnificence he saw all around him. It was in 1913 that Tom Thomson showed his first major canvas, A Northern Lake, at the Ontario Society of Artists Exhibition. It was purchased by the Government of Ontario for $250. That same year he was made an offer of patronage by acquaintance Dr. MacCallum, enabling Thomson to take a leave from work to paint full-time. Thomson made Mowat Lake his homebase and fully engrossed himself in the wilderness.
While many of his collegues and friends were participating in the First World War, Tom Thomson delved deeper into his work: working late Spring to Fall up North and at his studio in Toronto during the Winter. He began to push his painting past traditional landscapes making his strokes rougher, his colours more bold, and concentrating his images on wilder subjects like jagged rocks and scrubbed down trees.
On July 16, 1917, Thomson’s body was found floating in Canoe Lake. Officially, Thomson’s death was ruled an accidental drowning, but there are still speculations about a possible suicide and foul play. And there is still a question as to where his body is actually buried. The death of Tom Thomson remains one of the great Canadian mysteries. This self taught artist’s ability to capture the wild and the circumstance surrounding his death make Tom Thomson’s story as captivating as his paintings.