In the autumn of 1912, a commercial artist by the name of Tom Thomson returned from an extended trip to the Mississauga country, north of Georgian Bay, with a bag full of sketches that were to add new momentum to Canadian art. His friends, many of whom were fellow employees of the art firm of Grip Ltd in Toronto, saw Thomson’s naturalistic approach to indigenous subject matter as a pointer away from the influence of Europe, declaring the “northland” as the true Canadian “painter’s country”. World War I and the death of Thomson – who drowned in 1917 – delayed these artists’ ambitions, but in 1920 they formed the Group of Seven. Initially, the group comprised Franklin H. Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, F.H. Varley and Frank Johnston; later, they were joined by A.J. Casson, LeMoine Fitzgerald and Edwin Holgate. Working under the unofficial leadership of Harris, they explored the wilds of Algoma in northern Ontario, travelling around in a converted freight car, and later foraged even further afield, from Newfoundland and Baffin Island to British Columbia.

They were immediately successful, staging forty shows in eleven years, a triumph due in large part to Harris’s many influential contacts. Yet there was also a genuine popular response to the intrepid frontiersman element of their aesthetic. Art was a matter of “taking to the road” and “risking all for the glory of a great adventure”, as they wrote in 1922, while “nature was the measure of a man’s stature”, according to Lismer. Symbolic of struggle against the elements, the Group’s favourite symbol was the lone pine set against the sky, an image whose authenticity was confirmed by reference to the “manly” poetry of Walt Whitman.

The legacy of the Group of Seven was – and perhaps still is – double-edged. On the one hand, they established the autonomy of Canadian art, but on the other their contribution was soon institutionalized, and well into the 1950s it was difficult for Canadian painters to establish an identity that didn’t conform to the Group’s precepts. Despite the Group’s unpopularity among many later painters, Ontario artist Graham Coughtry (1931–99) was, for one, generous: “They are the closest we’ve ever come to having some kind of romantic heroes in Canadian painting.”

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