Central Ontario School of Art interior, William Cruikshank instructor , Unknown, Archives of Ontario, F 1140-7-0-3-1 / I0010334, Tom Thomson likely took evening art classes taught by Cruickshank in 1907. At this time, Thomson was working at Grip Limited during the day
Tom Thomson belonged to a dynamic community of artists that came together in Toronto, Ontario, in the first decades of the twentieth-century. They brought a wide variety of experiences and interests to their work. Some had studied art in Europe, while others, like Thomson, had not. Most of them held ‘day jobs’ as graphic designers and illustrators, sketching and painting during evenings, weekends, and holidays. They participated in exhibitions in the city, often organized by groups of older, more established artists, and compared ideas and strategies about what direction their art should be developing in.
As they attempted to challenge the expectations of Toronto art audiences, their efforts certainly gained the attention of important supporters – supporters who were willing to help pay their bills, allowing them more time to concentrate on making art instead of working.
In the summer of 1914, however, a new challenge presented itself – war in Europe. Among Thomson’s circle of friends, the war was likely a frequent topic of conversation. Some artists felt they needed to put their art-making on hold to join in the fight. Regardless of whether they were serving or not, the war certainly helped to deeply shape how Thomson’s friends, if not all Canadians, perceived the world.
The comradeship between some of Thomson’s artistic friends led to a noteworthy union after his death. In 1920, a group of his artistic peers banded together to exhibit their works and pursue common interests. Known as the ‘Group of Seven’, they had clear ideas about what goals Canadian artists should be pursuing, and the style of art they should try to make, and very quickly attained critical and popular success. The members of this group often cited Tom Thomson as an important inspiration. These artists popularized a way of painting that has come to be widely regarded as Canada’s ‘national style’.
The documents reproduced here offer a clearer understanding of the forces that helped to shape Thomson as an artist – ranging from understanding the types of art being made in Canada early in the twentieth-century through to the kind of income Thomson made as an artist.