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Artist and sculptor

Thomson, Tom

Category: Artist and sculptor

Thomas John Thomson (August 5, 1877 – July 8, 1917) was a Canadian artist active in the early 20th century. During his short career he produced roughly 400 oil sketches on small wood panels along with around 50 larger works on canvas.

Thomson started painting not long after Europe had been taken by storm by the Impressionists and the Pointillists.  Georges-Pierre Seurat, for example was one of the leading French pointillists.  Seurat was born in Paris, on 2 December 1859, but died young on 29 March 1891 aged only 31.  Although Seurat’s paintings are of landscapes, they are monumental in size and the majority were done using sketches in his studio.  Thomson in contrast worked in the open air and his works consist almost entirely of landscapes depicting trees, skies, lakes, and rivers. The meticulous highly controlled painting style developed by Seurat in his Pointillist paintings, would never have worked for Thomson, so instead his paintings use broader brush strokes and a liberal application of paint to capture the fleeting Light and Movement, Beauty and Colour of the Ontario landscape.

Their aims were thus not so different.  Areas of pure colour, which when seen from afar give you a more vibrant living landscape bursting with shimmering light.  Tragically, Thomson also died young at 39.  But his influence lives on.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Thomson is that he was largely self-taught, whereas Seurat had had an academy training.  Thomson is thus much more of a mystical painter, acquiring his inspiration directly from his immersion in Nature and a simple fulfilling and loving life.

Tom Thomson - Catalogue Raisonné Researched and written by Joan Murray

A good story exists about what Thomson felt he was doing in painting nature. In talking with a friend, Algonquin Park forest ranger Mark Robinson, Thomson …. To explain what he meant, …..added a metaphor drawn from music, saying that in the same way that imperfect notes destroy the soul of music, imperfect colour destroys the soul of the canvas.

Although he died before the formal establishment of the Group of Seven [shown left] , Thomson is often considered an unofficial member.

His art is typically exhibited with the rest of the Group's, nearly all of which remains in Canada—mainly at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg and the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound.

From whence cometh inspiration?

Communing with nature

Born August 5, 1877, in Claremont, Ontario, Thomas John Thomson grew up on a farm in Leith, a small town near Owen Sound to which his family had moved when he was a few months old. He was the sixth of ten children of Margaret J. Matheson and John Thomson.  Thomson’s father was something of a naturalist, an interest he passed on to Tom.

Ben Jackson once wrote:

Tom was never understood by lots of people, was very quiet, modest and, as a friend of mine spoke of him, a gentle soul. He cared nothing for social life, but with one or two companions on a sketching and fishing trip with his pipe and Hudson Bay tobacco going, he was a delightful companion. If a party or the boys got a little loud or rough Tom would get his sketching kit and wander off alone. At times he liked to be that way, wanted to be by himself commune [sic] with nature.

Below:Tom Thomson (R) with Arthur Lismer, fishing in Algonquin Park

Home schooling

Thomson was happy as a child, but ill.  And it was an illness which kept him at home and out of school.   Since part of the treatment, along with appropriate rest, was exercise, he was encouraged to wander freely through the countryside, and enjoyed long, uninterrupted hours of fishing and - initially - hunting. In this way, he developed his love of the outdoors. Later, he gave up shotgun and rifle, having found the look in a dying deer’s eyes too upsetting, but he stayed with fishing. 

Tom’s mother loved literature and, due to her influence, the family had a good library. Being home schooled, was thus no disadvantage, as their library contained a good cross section of books on archaeology, geology and astronomy, as well as poetry (Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott were special favourites) and fiction, particularly Charles Dickens and George Eliot.  Tom’s education was thus beneficially broad.

Beauty, music and art

Tom Thomson - Catalogue Raisonné Researched and written by Joan Murray

His brother Henry, who roomed with him from 1902 to 1905, wrote of Thomson in this period that they “always had time to go fishing whenever the fishing was good, but Tom always carried his sketch pad and pencils. Whenever an unusual scene showed up, I knew it meant curtains as far as the fishing was concerned.”

The family also had time for music, and most of them played instruments or sang, or both. Tom played the cornet, violin and mandolin, and had a fine tenor voice. Almost all the family sketched.

Believing in the spiritual world – humility and gratitude

Thomson’s early work reveals an admiration for Robert Burns – a family favourite. He often painted Burns’s “Blessing” with a decorative surround, usually of landscape, as a gift for family members and friends.   The Blessing is more commonly known as the Selkirk Grace, and is ‘a prayer said afore eatin that's attreebute tae Robert Burns’:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!

He also illustrated a short message of Henry van Dyke’s –  “The Foot Path to Peace,” which exhorts the reader “to be glad of life because it gives you a chance to love, and to work, and to play, and to look up at the stars…and to spend as much time as you can with body and with spirit in God’s out-of-doors.”  So there is also gratitude and humility in this belief in God’s kingdom and natural contentment.

Thomson often experienced self-doubt.  A. Y. Jackson recalled that in the fall of 1914, Thomson threw his sketch box into the woods out of frustration, and was "so shy he could hardly be induced to show his sketches". Several of the canvases he sent to exhibitions remained unsigned.  Thankfully the turning point in his career came in 1914, when the National Gallery of Canada, under the directorship of Eric Brown, began to acquire his paintings. Although the money was not enough to live on, it gave him more confidence in his ability and motivated him to keep going.

Early training

Tom Thomson - Catalogue Raisonné Researched and written by Joan Murray

Thomson had a period of unfocused searching before he settled into his first real job, in commercial art. In 1899, he apprenticed as a machinist in a foundry in Owen Sound, but quit after eight months. He followed this false start with attendance at two business schools, one in Chatham, Ontario – the Canada Business College (1900), and one in Seattle – the Acme Business College, run by his eldest brother George and a friend, F. R. McLaren (1902).

With the aid of this training, and no doubt with the help of his brother, he found work with a company in Seattle – Maring and Ladd, as a graphic artist and engraver. Soon he moved to the Seattle Engraving Company. It was only on Thomson’s return to Canada, late in 1904 or early in 1905, that he made up his mind to be a professional artist.

It was in Toronto, about 1906, that Thomson received his first fine art training.
He took lessons from the academician William Cruikshank (1848-1922), either through night school at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design, or privately, at Cruikshank’s studio.

A Scot by birth, Cruikshank had had a thorough academic background during the late 1860s and early 1870s, having attended the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh and Royal Academy Schools in London, as well as the Atelier Yvon in Paris. By the early 1900s, he was well respected as a keen recorder of Canadian rural life. His Breaking a Road (National Gallery of Canada), painted in 1894, and included in the prestigious Universal Exposition in St. Louis of 1904, examines the way in which an ox-team opens a snow-bound road.
The setting, distant trees and house, animals, men, cart and carriages indicate the painter’s keen appetite for the appearance of things and belief in observation from nature, precepts he inculcated in his many students. ………………….

Luckily for Thomson, through a job at Grip Limited, a well-known and thriving commercial art firm in Toronto, he started to work about 1909. …………..When Thomson joined Grip, the company was at an ambitious stage of its development. Much Canadian advertising had been placed with agencies and commercial artists in New York, and Grip aimed to break into the market by offering artwork of a competitive quality. It engaged a good art director, A.H. Robson, and a painter, J.E.H. MacDonald, who was considered the anchor of the design team.
Robson recalled later that when he hired Thomson, he looked at samples of his work, mostly lettering and decorative designs applied to booklet covers and some labels. He found there, he wrote, a “feeling for spacing and arrangement, an over-tone of intellectual as well as aesthetic approach….”

Since design was clearly Thomson’s strong point, Robson placed him in the design section of the firm, under the tutelage of MacDonald. At Grip, with this kindly man’s support, Thomson’s natural ability began to flower. The two men were kindred spirits: both loved nature and literature. MacDonald even wrote poetry. …. MacDonald, it was, for instance, along with other members of the firm, who looked into art journals of the period such as The Studio, published in England since 1893. Such magazines allowed commercial artists to follow the latest developments in works of artists in Britain such as William Morris. …………. Gradually, under the impact of his work at Grip, Thomson began to be more than just a craftsman.

Moving out of doors

At the turn of the 20th century, Thomson met those who eventually formed the Group of Seven, including J. E. H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Arthur Lismer. MacDonald, encouraged his staff to paint outside in their spare time to better hone their skills. In December 1910, artist William Smithson Broadhead was hired, joined by Arthur Lismer in February 1911. Robson eventually hired Frederick Varley, followed by Franklin Carmichael in April 1911.
Although Thomson was not himself a member, it was at the Arts and Letters Club that MacDonald introduced Thomson to Lawren Harris.

Dr. James MacCallum, a frequent visitor to the Ontario Society of Artists' (OSA) exhibitions recognized Thomson's and A. Y. Jackson's talents and offered to cover their expenses for one year if they committed themselves to painting full time.  But Thomson hesitated.  MacCallum wrote that when he first saw Thomson's sketches, he recognized their "truthfulness, their feeling and their sympathy with the grim fascinating northland ... they made me feel that the North had gripped Thomson as it had gripped me since I was eleven when I first sailed and paddled through its silent places." After Thomson's death, it was Dr MacCallum who helped preserve and advocate for his work. 

MacDonald left Grip in November 1911 to do freelance work and spend more time painting, after the Ontario government purchased his canvas By the River (Early Spring) (1911).

Eventually Thomson accepted MacCallum's offer travelled around Ontario with his colleagues, especially to the wilderness of Ontario, which was to become a major source of inspiration.  And in May 1912, Thomson visited Algonquin Park—a major public park and forest reservation in Central Ontario—for the first time. Regarding Algonquin Park, he wrote in a letter to MacCallum: "The best I can do does not do the place much justice in the way of beauty."

He became enraptured with the area and repeatedly returned, typically spending his winters in Toronto and the rest of the year in the Park.

The lure of love

There is no doubt at all that Thomson was attracted to Algonquin Park for its own sake, but there may have been an added attraction that rarely gets mentioned.  While returning to Toronto in November 1912, Thomson stopped in Huntsville. The visit was to meet with Winfred Trainor, whose family owned a cottage on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park.

From Roy MacGregor - Northern Light

The eccentric spinster Winnie Trainor was a fixture of my  childhood in Huntsville, Ontario. She was considered too odd to be a truly romantic figure in the eyes of the town, but the locals knew that Canada's most famous painter had once been in love with her, and that she had never gotten over his untimely death. She kept some paintings he gave her in a six-quart basket she'd leave with the neighbours on her rare trips out of town, and in the summers she'd make the trip from her family cottage, where Thomson used to stay, on foot to the graveyard up the hill, where fans of the artist occasionally left bouquets. There she would clear away the flowers. After all, as far as anyone knew, he wasn't there: she had arranged at his family's request for him to be exhumed and moved to a cemetery near Owen Sound.


Trainor was later rumoured to have been engaged to Thomson with a wedding planned for late 1917, so in the end love also played a part in the creative process and grief.

Left Sunset 1915

Artistic flowering (1915–17)

In the spring of 1915, Thomson returned to Algonquin Park earlier than he had in any previous year and had already painted twenty-eight sketches by April 22. From April through July, he spent much of his time ‘fishing’, assisting groups on several different lakes, and sketching ‘when he had time’.  In July, he was invited to send paintings to the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition in September. Because he was in Algonquin Park, his friends selected three works for him.

In late November, he returned to Toronto and moved into a shack behind the Studio Building that Harris and MacCallum fixed up for him, renting it for $1 a month.  Artists earn practically nothing, and a shack is hardly suitable accommodation for a wife, he must have been in turmoil.  But in the end angst and separation from his lover seems to have produced some of his most memorable work

Tom Thomson - Catalogue Raisonné Researched and written by Joan Murray

“Down at the water’s edge grow the spruce, cedar, pine, with a few birch, then behind come the hardwoods, maple mostly…” wrote Lismer in words which describe Thomson’s new way of seeing colour that spring.  In Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, the first range of trees in the background is dark green. Above it, we see a second range of purplish pink trees – the hardwoods. That autumn Thomson’s colour changed even more, becoming bolder, purer and higher in key – the second sketch features a distinctly yellow tree (once its title). Other sketches have pinks, oranges, reds and yellows. Lismer remarked on Thomson’s way of selecting his material carefully and using a finer sense of colour than he had shown in previous work; he attributed the change to Jackson. …. All agreed that the autumn colour was glorious.

But maybe we know better now.


Tom Thomson - Catalogue Raisonné Researched and written by Joan Murray

The sketches of Thomson’s final spring in Algonquin Park provide a touching coda. Sometimes small, they show the progress of the seasons. In them the viewer finds mostly scenes of wintry to spring-like skies, partially frozen lakes, and melting snow, a subject which offered rich and changing possibilities. Thomson thought of these works as a day-by-day diary and in conversation with his friend Robinson he called these works his “records,” or so Robinson recalled.

Sometime in early July, he died. The coroner’s report, now lost, returned a verdict of accidental drowning. Although his death is the subject of one book after another, no hard facts have ever emerged. The story, however, is irresistible and ironically meaningful in terms of his art: the cliché of a painter, a tall, handsome man seeking the truth, whose life ended mysteriously during the course of that search.

After looking at his work, the viewer can understand the admiration of his fellow painters, and in time, all of Canada, for Thomson’s remarkable sensitivity to chromatic harmony. His paintings, prior in time to those of the Group of Seven, have earned him a kind of torchbearer status, as the maker of beautiful, sometimes exquisitely colourful artworks.

Thomson’s talent was the very real thing and his death a tragedy. In art, as elsewhere in life, there is nothing like loyalty, and his friends did a service by reminding Canadian art of his achievement. Today, of course, his work has attained iconic status. It exemplifies what art is really good for: channeling a country’s thoughts, feelings and fantasies into visual form. Thomson’s legacy, the attachment to the land with its immediate sense of the physical world we find in paintings like The Pool, lives on in the practices of art today.




  • Davis, Ann (1992). The Logic of Ecstasy: Canadian Mystical Painting, 1920–1940.
  • Harris, Lawren (July 1926). "The Revelation of Art in Canada". Canadian Theosophist. 7: 85–88.
  • Pringle, Gertrude (April 10, 1926). "Tom Thomson: The Man, Painter of the Wilds Was a Very Unique Individuality". Saturday Night. 41 (21): 5.
  • Jackson, A. Y. (1919). Foreword. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Paintings by the Late Tom Thomson, March 1 to March 21, 1919. By Arts Club of Montreal.
  • ——— (1935). Foreword. A Study of Tom Thomson: The Story of a Man Who Looked for Beauty and for Truth in the Wilderness. By Davies, Blodwen


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