Saturday, 15 July 2017




This past weekend was the 100th anniversary of the death of Tom Thomson, beloved Canadian artist to many and friend to those who would later form the Group of Seven. Now, perhaps beloved is not quite strong enough of a word to describe my admiration of Thomson and his art. In 2010 I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with my family for the very first time. Although we were there to see the King Tut exhibition currently on display, many of my strongest and fondest memories of the trip are of the long moments spent admiring paintings by Tom Thomson. I remember seeing The West Wind, thinking about how close I was to the real painting and being astounded at it not being behind glass.

A day of firsts: visiting the AGO, viewing Egyptian artifacts, and admiring original Tom Thomson paintings. Photo courtesy of Emily Welsh.

However, it was not only my admiration of Thomson's artistic style that centered him as my favourite artist, but also his life story and deep connection to Algonquin Park. Growing up in Bancroft, Ontario, and learning about the locations Thomson painted, I grew emotionally attached to his works as they depicted scenes so close to my hometown and of the landscape I knew so well and loved so much.

Born in Claremont, Ontario in 1877, Thomson attended night school at the Central Ontario School of Art and Industrial Design in 1906 after first working as a commercial artist in Seattle. He went on to work as a commercial artist for Grip Limited where he met J.E.H MacDonald, one of the future founding members of the Group of Seven. Thomson would later become friends with other future members of the Group, embark on trips into Ontario's wilderness, and develop the signature style we know him for today. In the last years of his life, Thomson lived in Algonquin Park from spring to fall and spent the winter months in a shack he rented behind the Studio Building at 25 Severn Street. Thomson would produce small painted sketches in the field and produce larger paintings when back in Toronto.  

Tom Thomson. Algonquin Park. 1914 - 1916. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

On July 8th, 1917, just shy of his 40th birthday, Tom Thomson drowned at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. His body was found six days later. Officially, it was ruled accidental drowning, but the mystery and theories live on today. The Twitter account recreating Thomson's last months gives eight possible fates including accident, suicide, and murder. A recent exhibition, The Persistence of Doubt, at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery likewise explored the fate of Tom Thomson - his death and the whereabouts of his remains - with artist Markowsky including sketches of possible scenarios for Thomson's death. The video below was played in the exhibition (Warning: very brief nudity):

Exactly 100 years after Thomson's death, people gathered at Canoe Lake to commemorate the anniversary. Likewise, both the Algonquin Art Centre and the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre have current exhibitions marking the centennial of Thomson's death. The Algonquin Art Centre also unveiled their Tom Thomson Legacy Path this summer.

I too wished to observe the anniversary of Thomson's death, and this past Saturday I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). I admired his skill and the beauty of his paintings, but I didn't feel as much emotional impact as I expected. Perhaps this was due to my frequent viewings of the works; since starting my Master's degree at the iSchool, I have been able to visit the AGO more frequently and each trip I make sure to stop by the Canadian Collection. Perhaps the lack of seeing or learning something new was at the root of this response. However, I did feel tinges of sadness and had moments of contemplation seeing the scenes of Canoe Lake among his paintings.

One of my favourite pieces by Thomson on display at the AGO; After the Sleet Storm truly captures the bowing limbs of trees after an ice storm, drawing upon my memories of Ontario winters. Photo courtesy of Emily Welsh.

On Sunday I caught the “Art Bus” and headed out to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. The McMichael was hosting a “Remembering Tom Thomson” event with a variety of activities on Saturday and Sunday, including free admission to the gallery. I was especially excited for the trip as it was my first time visiting and a chance to see Tom Thomson pieces I had never seen before.

First and foremost, I was fixated on the idea of seeing Tom Thomson's shack; I had my eyes peeled for it as we drove up the driveway and walked up to the gallery. The once deteriorating shack was purchased by the McMichael founders, transported and reconstructed on the gallery's grounds. Today the shack acts as a studio for the McMichael's artist in residence and allows visitors to see the shack brought to life. Although it was closed upon my visit, peeking through the windows I thought about Thomson living and painting in this small space and began to feel closer to the artist. 
Tom Thomson Shack on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Photo courtesy of Emily Welsh.

Inside the gallery, the McMichael’s temporary exhibit, Passion over Reason: Tom Thomson & Joyce Wieland, provided me the opportunity to learn many new things about Thomson and his art. Some of his early paintings were on display, featuring styles I had never known he used and of subject matter I've rarely seen in his landscape paintings, namely portraits. There was even a display of photographs taken by Thomson himself!

One of the pieces I found most powerful in the exhibition was a palette used by Tom Thomson. The intersection of art and history prompted me to think more about how these art pieces were created. The exhibition as whole also prompted me to think about Thomson in a new light by presenting his works alongside those of Joyce Weiland and asking visitors to think critically about how we create national icons.

A palette used by Tom Thomson. On display in Passion over Reason at McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Photo courtesy of Emily Welsh.
For me, I will likely remember this anniversary by the new experiences I had and the additional insight I gained into a beloved artist. Perhaps that is how we as museum professionals should treat these anniversaries: as opportunities to not only revisit what we know and love about an individual or time, but to push our audiences to think and explore more deeply the someone or something that they love.

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