Dr. James MacCallum, "Tom Thomson: Painter of the North", Canadian Magazine, Mar. 1918

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With the tragic death of Tom Thomson in July, 1917, there disappeared from Canadian art a unique personality. Thomson’s short and meteoric career, the daring handling and unusual subjects of his pictures, the life he led, set him apart. Living in the woods and even when in town avoiding the haunts of artists, he was to the public an object of mysterious interest. He lived his own life, did his work in his own way, and died in the land of his dearest visions.

It was in October, 1912, that I first met him – in the studio of J. E. H. MacDonald. The door opened and in walked a tall, slim, clean cut, dark young chap who was introduced to me as Tom Thomson. Quiet, reserved, chary of words, he interested me, for I had heard of his adventures in the Mississauga Forest Re-

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serve. I asked MacDonald to get some of his sketches so that I might get an idea of what the country is like. This was done, and as I looked them over I realized their truthfulness, their feeling and their sympathy with the grim, fascinating northland. Dark they were, muddy in colour, tight, and not wanting in technical defects, but they made me feel that the North had gripped Thomson, as it had gripped me ever since, when a boy of eleven, I first sailed and paddled through its silent places.

The following March, at an exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, my attention was attracted to a picture – one of the small northern lakes swept by a northwest wind; a squall just passing from the far shore, the water crisp, sparklingly blue and broken into short, white-caps – a picture full of light, life and vigour. This picture, “A Northern Lake”, the first one exhibited by Thomson, was purchased by the Ontario Government.

Autumn came again, and at last my numerous inquiries were rewarded by the information that “Tom has come home again”. His hiding-place in a boarding-house I at last discovered, and found his walls covered with sketches. Half of them I borrowed to look over at my leisure, for he had sought to depict lightning flashes, moving thunder-storms, and trees with branches lashing in the wind. These sketches so interested the painter A. Y. Jackson, that he asked to meet Thomson, and ended by sharing his studio with him.

At the next exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, in 1914, Thomson exhibited two pictures, one of which, “A Moonlight Scene”, was purchased for the National Gallery at Ottawa. As spring came on, it was arranged that the artist should go with me on a trip amongst the islands of the Georgian Bay and remain there at my summer home until August. Leaving my place, he paddled and portaged all the way from Go Home to Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, where he was joined by Jackson, who had been painting in the Rockies. Before leaving me, we had a long talk about his work. I said to him: “Jackson has had what you have not – an academic training. He has a brighter colour sense, but he has not the feeling you have. You can learn much from him, and he from you, but you must not try to be another Jackson. Learn all you can from him, but, whatever you do, keep your own individuality.”

Jackson and he camped together and painted until the snow and cold weather drove them back to the city. I awaited with some curiosity their home-coming, but the first glance at Thomson’s sketches reassured me. His colour sense had broadened marvelously, but the old feeling and sympathy remained. The sketches were much higher in key, with not a trace of muddiness, but painted in clean, pure colour ranging from one end of the spectrum to the other. I felt sure that many of them had been devised simply as harmonies in colour, but I was always met with the response, “No, it is just like that”. The truth of that I know now from personal experience, for I have when camped with Thomson, frequently seen the very colours and forms to which in his sketches I had taken the most violent exception.

The group of painters of which Thomson was one soon began to be bitterly attacked by artists and newspaper critics and held up to ridicule as painting things which were untrue and impossible. Thomson lived eight months of each year in Algonquin Park, often disappearing into its recesses for a month at a time, seeing no one and being seen by no one. Only one who has so lived is in a position to attack the colour or truthfulness of his pictures. [...]

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As has been said, Thomson had but one method of expressing himself, and that one was by means of paint. He did not discuss theories of art, technical methods nor choice of motives. He never told about marvelous scenes, of how they had thrilled and held him. He merely showed the sketches and said never a word of his difficulties or of what he had tried to express. His idea seemed to be that the way to learn to paint was to paint. He did not choose some one landscape or some one kind of landscape. All nature seemed to him paintable – the most difficult, the most unlikely subjects held no terrors for him – the confidence of inexperience it may have been. No doubt he put his own impress on what he painted, but the country he painted ever grew into his soul, stronger and stronger, rendering him shy and silent, filling him with longing and love for its beauties. His stay in the studio became shorter and shorter, his dress more and more like that of the backwoodsman. The quiet hidden strength, confidence and resource of the voyageur showed itself in the surety of handling in his work. He was not concerned with any special technique, any particular mode of application of colour, with this kind of brush stroke or that. If it were true to nature, technique might be anything. A technique all his own, varying with the occasion, sprang into being, not as the result of any laboured thought or experiment, but because it could not be otherwise. He proved the theory that the technique should harmonize with the nature of the painting, should never overpower or dominate the idea or emotion express-

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ed, and should appear to be the best or the only technique to adequately express the idea. However unaccustomed with it, one loses sight of the technique and feels only the emotion of the picture, that technique is good. Judged by these criterions, his technique is unassailable. Drawing was to him the expression of form, and form might be expressed by any method, so long as the form is true. One would have expected that with his intimate knowledge of trees he would have loved to paint all their traceries. In the “Northern River” alone did he lavish detail on his trees and here only because it helped the pattern. In one in whom the sense of design, of decoration was so developed that is the more striking, for in his sketches and in his larger pictures he always treated trees as masses. In his painting of them he

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gives form structure and colour by dragging paint in bold strokes over an underlying tone. Like many other painters he felt the limitations of paint, the impossibility of expressing on a flat surface the solidity and thickness of a tree, and in some canvasses almost modeled them in paint, while in others he got the same effect by expressing them by deep grooves in the paint.

At an exhibition of some of Thomson’s pictures I overhead a well-known woman artist say, “Well! Now where would you hang that?” She really felt the daring of the colour and of the method of execution of the picture. To the painter of the schools his work may seem daring, but it was not so to him. It was rather the joy of a boy playing with paints, intent only on expressing something which had pleasurably excited him, and all unconscious of doing anything out of the ordinary, or tackling anything unusual. Because his paintings are so striking in purity of colour and in handling they are thought to be unusual. They are unusual, in that other artists have not had the opportunity to see the same subjects or have thought them either impossible or unworthy of painting.

The northern spring radiant with hope bursting riotously forth from the grim embrace of winter always found him in the woods ready to chronicle its beauties. The awakening rivers and lakes, the earth peeping here and there through her coverlet of snow and the sunny skies afforded a wealth or ravishing colour which ever charm-

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ed his sensitive soul. The hardwood bush, budding into varied hues of pink, lavender, blue, purple, brown and black, lent itself to many harmonies.

When the beautiful white birches and solemn stately pines were lost in the crass greens of the summer forest, his brushes were laid aside. He now began to cruise the park seeking new sketching grounds. Camped by himself, he was, to the tourist, a mysterious hermit of whose marvellous skill as a fisherman there were many tales told. To the native guides he was just as incomprehensible, “worse than any Indian”, they said.

The September hardwood in its gorgeous garb of many colours; the pines, strong and grave, mourning among the forest ghosts still beautiful in their tracery against the cold blue October sky; the falling snow and biting blast, the southward migrating of wild fowl, the November heavens, chill and gray, all had response and record from him. Loath to return to the city, he lingered, painting until the forming ice warned him that he might be shut in for the winter. Then he returned to us, who were waiting to see what new thing he had brought home.

Three months of steady painting in his studio, and early March found him growing more and more restless. His fishing lures made by himself, and strung like necklaces on the wall,

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gradually disappeared from their accustomed place. Then we knew that his flitting time was near. One day he would say “If I don’t get up there now, the snow will all be gone.”

Next day his shack would be empty.

And so his year passed by.

Thomson's knowledge of the appearance at night of the woods and lakes was unrivalled. He was wont to paddle out into the centre of the lake on which he happened to be camping and spend the whole night there in order to get away from the flies and mosquitoes. Motionless he studied the night skies and the changing outline of the shores while beaver and otter played around his canoe. Puffing slowly at his pipe, he watched the smoke of his campfire slowly curling up amongst the pines, through which peeped here and there a star, or wondered at the amazing northern lights flashing across the sky, his reverie broken by the howling of wolves of the whistling of a buck attracted by the fire. In his nocturnes, whether of the moonlight playing across the lake, or touching the brook through the gloom of the forest, or of the tent shown up in the darkness by the dim light of the candle within, or of the driving rain suddenly illuminated by the flash of lightning, or of the bare birch tops forming beautiful peacock fans against the cold wind-driven blue skies, one feels that it is nature far apart, unsullied by the intruder man.


It has not been the fortune of any of our artists to have had during their lifetime a vogue with the Canadian public. Thomson was no exception. To the art critics of the daily press he was an enigma, something which, because beyond the pale of their experience, it seemed quite safe to ridicule. Yet in one magazine a courageous writer ventured to say, “Tom Thomson can put the spirit of Canada on a piece of board eight inches by ten inches.”

The intelligent public rather liked his work, but was not quite sure whether it was the safe and proper thing to say so. He found recognition, however, among his fellow artists, who looked forward with pleasure and curiosity to see what he would show at each exhibition. It is to the credit of the Ontario Government and the trustees of the National Gallery of Ottawa that they recognized his value. He never exhibited at the Ontario Society of Artists without having one of his pictures bought for the Province of the Dominion. These will remain

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for succeeding generations, the ultimate arbiters of the reputation of all artists. Confidently we leave to them the fame of “Tom Thomson, artist and woodsman, who lived humbly but passionately with the wild.”

Source: J. M. MacCallum, "Tom Thomson: Painter of the North ," The Canadian Magazine, March 31, 1918

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