The Life and Art of Tom Thomson

Tom Thomson, “Thunderhead”, 1912-1913, 8.5″x 10.5″.

“He said I had something that the other artists didn’t have- that I had a sense of the wilderness and knew what could be expressed through art. I laughed and said I could pick the trees out and catch fish better than any artist. But my art was from my knowledge of the country, not from being a superior artist.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, May 20, 1917: Confessions at Tea Lake Dam.

Recently, I have been reading the late journal of the Canadian landscape painter, Tom Thomson. He is best know for his association with the Group of Seven who gave rise to an epic landscape style focused on the Canadian North, particularly around Algonquin Park in the 1910’s. Tom Thomson is the most well know of the group although, he never officially joined. Thomson was a non-conformist and joining any group did not sit well with him. The journal entries comprise of Thomson’s last year of painting in Algonquin Park beginning in March 1917. Thomson will die in a canoe accident at the end of July under suspicious circumstances. Many books on Thomson are focused on this drama.

But what I really found inspiring about Thomson was his love of nature and his attempts to place man within that vastness. His practice was to paint every day outside regardless of the weather. One can see from his images, that immediacy and deep engagement in the moment of painting. He is cold and wet, hot and eaten by bugs, blown around by the wind, joyful with the coming of spring, wandering around at night to see the Northern Lights, and exhausted from a long hike painting in deep snow. He is present and meditative seeking an experience of pure isolation- not spurning human company but searching instead, for a space in which he can engage with himself and with nature.

Thomson is very much like the Thoreau of the Canadian North. He rarely seeks personal attention and seems not to care much about what the art world thinks of him. He lets the artist’s ego go and chooses instead to live the full life regardless of his poverty. I feel this quote from Thoreau’s Walden is appropriate,

“The lesson he taught himself (Thoreau), and which he tried to teach others, was summed up in one word “simplify”. That meant simplify the outward circumstances of your life, simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in the simple pleasures which the world of Nature affords. It meant also, scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definitions of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others.”

Joseph Wood Krutch introduction to “Walden and other Writings by Henry David Thoreau”.

Thomson’s experience is very much like my own experience when I plein air paint. On-site, I am immersed in my subject and in my own thoughts and reveries. And the give and take between these two poles allow the image to emerge as a natural manifestation of the experience. Nature is generative and one’s deeply sought experience in that space allows the artist himself to be reborn and renewed. Thomson speaks of his need to paint, his need to get back to himself once again that could only happen through the very act of painting. Painting is recalling oneself back to center, back to an inward stasis that promotes creativity and gives the imagination space to manifest itself. If one is not true to oneself and one’s experience, the artistic spirit cannot thrive.

Tom Thomson, “Approaching Snowstorm”, 1916.

“In the evening, after dinner, I made a sketch of the sky in the failing light. The dark clouds from the cold front were moving in, smothering the sunlight from the early evening. There is a sense of inevitability in the scene I painted. Inevitability about what, I don’t know.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, May 12, 1917: The Trainors Arrive.

Thomson painted primarily, what I would call, pochades (Thomson’s are painted on birch panels and orange crate pine boards). Small, quick, spontaneous paintings done in one go. Most are around 8″x 10″or 6″x 8″. Some will mature to large gallery paintings produced later in Thomson’s studio in Toronto (under 24 canvases). But most will remain small under 14″x 16″. The journal entries of 1917 are all of the smaller sizes. Thomson is best known for his large image “The Jack Pine”, but I find his pochades focused on the sky the most compelling. The way Thomson makes the clouds lift up and press down from above are strong and beautiful, producing an incredible feeling of immensity and grandeur. It has caused me to reconsider the largeness of my skies. I admire the intensity of the color and the deepness of the tones in the clouds. The contrast adds dramatic effect and creates a greater range of values than I typically give myself. He also balances the color temperature, alternating between cool and warm passages that enliven the surface.

Tom Thomson, “Northern Lights”, 1916.

So what am I doing? I’m sketching. I’m drawing. I’m painting. I find it distressing that we’re fighting the very ones I drew inspiration from. The German Expressionists, their insistence on bold strong colour and harsh depictions. The North lends itself to these techniques, and it was me who introduced the rest to what was here…It’s good to have a plan, but sometimes it is better to live day by day and catch the moment when it’s appropriate.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, April 19, 1917: Thinking of Leaving

Thomson’s compositions I find so true to experience. There is, as he said, an ‘inevitability’ in his compositions. They feel unreconstructed, without pretense. Just as if I, myself, had walked into the scene- the vault of the sky, the laying in of the trees, the sharpness of the light generate a truth of experience in which my sight becomes clear, becomes heightened to perceiving the reality that lies before me. This is the calling of art, to brush away the scales from our eyes allowing one to see anew and therefore, feel more intensely than we have ever felt before.

“There are four seasons in the world, but there are only two in my mind- painting and no-painting.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, March 18, 1917: Last Canvas on the Easel.