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Who Were the Group of Seven?

The Group of Seven, also sometimes referred to as the Algonquin School, were a group of Canadian landscape painters who are often credited with starting Canada’s first internationally recognized art movement. Their work is often cited as a nationalist unifier of the Canadian identity through art, from the perspective of white, male, colonizers, and is equated with a romanticized notion of Canadian strength and independence.

Inspired by their frustration towards the naturalistic quality of the conservative style of English painters, The Group of Seven created art that reflected French Post-Impressionism and Scandinavian landscape painting with it’s vividity and bright colours. As such, their art is often described as romantic with mystical leanings. 

Debuting in 1920, The Group existed for thirteen years before officially disbanding in 1933 so the members could pursue their own interests and allow younger emerging artists into the spotlight. The name itself is a bit of a misnomer, as The Group went on to consist of a total of eleven painters. 

The original seven members were, Lawren S. Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael, and A.Y. Jackson. Three other members joined later, A.J. Casson (joined, 1926), Edwin Holgate (joined 1930), and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald (joined, 1932). In addition, while he died before The Group was officially named, Tom Thomson was a catalyst for The Group, not only in their formation, but also their relationship with nature. Painter Emily Carr is also often associated with The Group, although she was not an official member.

Brief History 

Around 1911, Thomson, MacDonald, Varley, Johnston, Lismer, and Carmichael met as employees at Grip Ltd., Toronto’s leading commercial design studio, where they all worked as graphic designers. During this time, the men would often eat their lunch at The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, where they would discuss and critique each other’s art. While at the club, they also met Harris and Jackson. 

In addition to their lunches, Thomson would organize excursions to Canada’s various national parks, like Algonquin Park, and other more secluded locations in the Canadian wilderness. This inspired the men, and created their philosophy that art should be created in direct contact with the physical world. 

In 1912, MacDonald and Harris travelled to Buffalo, New York to view an art show by Scandinavian painters. They were inspired by the colours, and the ways in which the landscapes were portrayed, remarking that except for a few key differences, the paintings could be depicting Canada. They decided to incorporate these techniques into their own art, creating the Group’s signature style of mystical, impressionistic, and colourful art. 

Starting in 1914, just after the men had rented their own art studio in Rosedale, Toronto, The Group temporarily went on hiatus during the first world war, with some leaving to work as war artists or to serve the army in various ways. 

The war took its toll on the men, with Jackson being seriously injured and Harris suffering a mental breakdown. Nothing hit The Group harder, however, than the news of Thomson’s accidental drowning in Algonquin Park, July of 1917. The members have written extensively of Thomson’s impact on them, and while he is technically not an official member of The Group of Seven, he is often treated as such. 

After the war, they returned to their studio, and in 1920, went on to hold their first exhibition as The Group of Seven at The Art Gallery of Toronto, now known as The Art Gallery of Ontario. This was Johnston’s only exhibition with the group, departing not long after to pursue his own artistic path. The exhibition was met with mixed reviews, with some critics openly slamming their painting style as it was a divergence from the popular style of the day. 

However, with support from those like Eric Brown, the director of the National Art Gallery of Canada, their art was featured generously in various galleries. Often, this prompted ire from their peers, who felt that the group were being favoured over others. Regardless, this allowed the men to hold touring exhibitions in North America and Europe to great success. These tours cemented The Group’s art movement and began conversations around Canada’s national identity.

Lauren Schwartz | Staff Writer

Spring 2024

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