A brief history of the Canadian Group of Seven

Algonquin Park, 1914, J.W. Beatty
In its infancy, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century, Canadian art was strongly influenced by a European sensibility and style. Serious students of art went to Paris or London to be immersed in the art styles and techniques of the day. Both art critics and the buying public alike favoured paintings of European subjects. There was a general opinion that the Canadian landscape was too rough and untamed to be suitable as subject matter. It was even suggested that the Canadian pine tree was "unpaintable". At the turn of the 20th Century this all began to change. A uniquely Canadian style began to emerge which showcased the Canadian landscape and spirit. The seeds of this new movement began to germinate in the Toronto Art Students League (TASL). From 1902, TASL members William Beatty and C.W. Jefferys organized sketching trips to Algonquin Park in search of inspiration in a distinctly Canadian landscape. Among their membership was a young commercial artist named J.E.H. MacDonald.

MacDonald was born in England but came to Canada with his family in 1889. His talent for art directed him toward a commercial design career. He was dedicated to making a personal statement with his art and devoted all of his free time to art classes and sketching trips. At an exhibition at the Arts and Letters Club in 1911, his work came to the attention of another passionate young artist, Lawren Harris. An heir to the Massey-Harris fortune, Lawren Harris was a man of independent means who had studied art in Berlin. On his return to Canada, Harris became enthusiastic about capturing the Canadian landscape through art and recognized that the spirit of MacDonald's work coincided with his own. Harris and his art patron friend, Dr. James MacCallum, convinced MacDonald to leave his job as a commercial designer of twenty years and become a professional painter. From that time forward the two artists began to sketch together.

In 1912, Macdonald and Harris exhibited together for the first time at the Ontario Society of Artists. Although they were still painting in a European style dictated by their formal training, their emphasis toward purely Canadian subject matter had already begun to set their work apart. While attending an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian landscape painting at the Albright Art Gallery, MacDonald and Harris experienced an epiphany of sorts. The Scandinavian portrayal of the wild, northern European terrain, so unlike anything they had seen before, resonated with both of them. As a direct result of this experience, a bold, new approach began to influence their painting style.

Winter, Algonquin Park, c1914, Tom Thomson
Through his connection with J.E.H. MacDonald, Harris came into contact with other future members of the Group of Seven. Several of MacDonald's colleagues from the graphic design firm Grip Ltd. became part of this informal group of artists, including Tom Thomson, Frank Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley and Frank Johnston. Varley spoke for the group when he described their common goal: "to knock out all the preconceived ideas, emptying ourselves of everything except that nature is here in all its greatness." They were passionate in their pursuit of a uniquely Canadian artistic expression.

During this time Harris was also in contact with a Montreal artist named A.Y. Jackson. Having returned from his studies in Paris, A.Y. Jackson found that he was frustrated by the conservative atmosphere of the Montreal art scene at the time. He was painting in a modern style that was criticized by the art establishment, and his exhibitions resulted in few sales. He was faced with the unattractive necessity of returning to his commercial design work in order to make a living. In 1913, when Harris invited Jackson to work in Toronto, Jackson gave serious consideration to the invitation. As a guest of Dr. James MacCallum, Jackson spent the summer sketching in Algonquin Park and eventually, in the fall of the same year, he made a decision to move to Toronto. Thanks to MacCallum, Jackson was guaranteed a living to paint for one year.

By this time, Lawren Harris, together with Dr. MacCallum, had constructed a studio building on Severn Street in Toronto which was to be the home of the fledgling group. Working together in the same studio, the group members were inspired by one another. A.Y. Jackson, in particular, was a positive influence on the talented but untrained Tom Thomson. On the other hand, Thomson, the outdoorsman and guide, shared his passion for the Northern Ontario landscape which, in turn, had a profound influence on the whole group as they sketched together in Algonquin Park. The studio group sketched together in Algonquin for the first time in 1914.

The advent of the First World War temporarily scattered the group. Several enlisted and some were commissioned as War Artists. Lord Beaverbrook formulated a plan for artists from around the Commonwealth to be chosen to portray the war in Europe. Among those chosen were A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Fred Varley. Their depictions of combat and the aftermath of battle transcended mere documentation. The years between 1914 and 1918 produced a profound artistic record of war from a uniquely Canadian perspective.

Tom Thomson remained behind and maintained an aggressive painting schedule. He traveled to Algonquin Park in early spring and sketched prolifically through to November. During the winter he returned to the studio where he painted canvases from his sketches. This effective routine produced many of the iconic Canadian paintings for which he is known. His artistic expression came to a tragic end with his death by drowning in July of 1917.

Algoma Sketch, 1919, Lawren Harris
With the end of the First World War in 1918, the surviving members of the group came together once again. When Lawren Harris returned from Europe, he visited the Algoma region of Ontario with James MacCallum. He was inspired and excited by the Algoma landscape and returned later the same year with J.E.H. MacDonald and Frank Johnston. Jackson joined them there on another group sketching trip the following year. Reunited and painting together, the four artists inspired each other to create paintings which reflected the landscape and spirit of the Canadian wilderness more than ever.

Spruce and Maple, Algoma, 1919 J.E.H. MacDonald
By March of 1920 they began to call themselves the "Group of Seven" for the first time. Their manifesto, as printed in their May 1920 exhibition program, read: "Art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people." This declaration identified their goal which was to define a unique artistic identity at a pivotal time in Canadian history. Included in the group at its inception were Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer and Franklin Carmichael.

As expected, their first exhibition was strongly criticized by the established art circles. Conservative art critic Hector Charlesworth, who had earlier accused J.E.H. MacDonald of "throwing his paint pots in the face of the public", continued to be a vocal opponent to the Group of Seven style. Undeterred or perhaps spurred on by the criticism, the Group actively promoted their work with the public, mounting more than 40 small exhibitions across Canada between 1920 and 1922.

Sand Lake, Algoma, Arthur Lismer
Algoma and Georgian Bay continued to be favoured sketching locales for the Group, but there was a general move to seek out inspiration further afield. Eastern images of the Laurentians and Nova Scotia were part of the Group's first exhibition and it wasn't long before they ventured west. Lawren Harris was attracted to the North Shore of Lake Superior where he was captivated by the vast expanse of water and sky. In 1924, Harris, MacDonald and Varley made their first sketching excursion to the Canadian Rockies. A.Y. Jackson also traveled widely and was the first to sketch in the Arctic in 1927. In all, paintings from members of the Group of Seven covered The Rockies, the Pacific Coast, the lower St. Lawrence, the Maritimes, Northern Ontario, the North Shore of Lake Superior, Georgian Bay, Algonquin Park and the Arctic. This dedication to the depiction of iconic Canadian landscapes won them respect and admiration. The National Gallery of Canada had supported the work of the Group from their early days, in spite of initial opposition to their paintings. By the late 1920s, there was a wider public acceptance of the Group of Seven style as a "National" school of art.

Algoma Landscape, A.Y. Jackson
The Group of Seven exhibited eight times at the Art Museum of Toronto (now the AGO) between 1920 and their last official exhibition in 1931. Membership tended to fluctuate throughout this time period: Frank Johnston left the Group in 1920, leaving only six members until 1926 when A.J. Casson was invited to join. The group expanded further to include Edwin Holgate (1929) and Lemoine Fitzgerald (1932). Over the thirteen years of its existence, the Group of Seven comprised ten members, eleven if one includes Tom Thomson who did not survive to see its official formation. The group disbanded in 1933 after the death of J.E.H. MacDonald.