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Tom Thomson: North Star

November 10, 2024March 23, 2025

Canadian art transformed in the early 20th century from a European-focused practice where most of the country’s successful artists trained and often made their careers in Paris, to one steeped in Canadian nationalisms, with landscape painting taking centre-stage until the rise of Abstraction in the 1950s. Then, as now, “Canada” was defined differently in every region, from East to West, but certainly the most dominant nationalism was that of the Group of Seven, whose vision of the wild Canadian landscape shaped what Canadians were presented as “Modern” art for generations.

But one painter did more to cement Canada’s wilderness as the default subject of Canadian painting than any other. Tom Thomson, though he never achieved wide public acclaim in his short lifetime, created hundreds of oil sketches on his trips to Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park between 1913 and 1917. Intended by the artist as precursors to larger, more finished, paintings, it is the sketches that have continued to fire the imagination of the public in the ten decades since his untimely death. His oil sketches, in their vitality, originality and freshness, brought something startlingly new to Canadian art. Indeed, Ian Desjardin, curator of the monumental exhibition Tom Thomson: North Star, argues that Thomson’s oil sketches are Canada’s preeminent contribution to international Modernism. Quite simply, Thomson stands as one of the defining figures of art in the 20th century, not just for Canada, but for the world.

Tom Thomson: North Star, organized and circulated by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, includes over a hundred of Thomson’s oil sketches, focusing on his remarkable three-year period of productivity from 1914-17. It is a legacy unmatched in Canadian art, and it begs the question of what might have been.

When the artist who was described by his contemporaries as a consummate woodsman and expert canoeist, capsized his craft and disappeared under the waters of Canoe Lake, he left a mystery and a promise. We cannot know what happened to him on that day in July 1917, but with Tom Thomson: North Star we can see what he left to the country, and his immense influence on the evolution of Canadian art.

Tom Thomson (1877–1917), Northern Lights, 1916 or 1917, oil on wood, 21.5 × 26.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Bequest of Dr. J.M. MacCallum, Toronto, 1944, Photo: NGC