Hugh MacLennan, "The Ten Greatest Canadians", New Liberty, 1949

What he did, no other Canadian artist had thought of attempting…


There have been more accomplished artists in Canada than Tom Thomson, and there has been at least one Canadian whose achievement in pure art was greater. James Willson Morrice, who did his best work in Europe and was spoken of in Paris as the peer of Matisse, had a deeper insight into color and form than Thomson, and a greater power of contemplation. By comparison, Tom Thomson was a crude painter with a one-track mind, who painted only during the last five years of his life.

But Tom Thomson managed to do something it never until then occurred to any other painter in Canada to attempt. He forced us to see the essential violence of the Canadian landscape. And he did it not for any social purpose but simply because it was necessary for a better understanding of himself. Those wild, flaming pageants of lonely lake and forest, those northern rivers with scarlet maple leaves afloat on water of cerulean depth, those pine trees writhing in solitary agony in autumnal winds on Georgian Bay – the meaning of this wilderness was opened before our eyes by Tom Thomson and the painters who followed him. They told us what a lonely country Canada really is. They made clear the significance of farms being cleared out of the bush and great cities rising against such a background.

The art of Tom Thomson was not international and it had no direct bearing on the great European tradition. It was native and extremely simple and fresh, and as such it was at once lesser and greater than the best work of Morrice; lesser in itself but infinitely greater in its germinal influences on all Canadian painting which has followed it.

Canada has never been great in her explorers and statesmen. In science and the professions she has come of age. But she will never be a truly great nation until her art has made her both articulate and visible – until the Canadian scene in all its fundamental aspects has achieved that universal significance which alone makes the life of a nation or of an individual of lasting value and inspiration to mankind.

Tom Thomson was the most outstanding pioneer in this final realization of what it means to be a Canadian, and I have no hesitation whatever in giving him a place of honor in my list of ten.

Source: Hugh MacLennan, "The Ten Greatest Canadians," New Liberty, 1949. Notes: Vol. 26, no. 9, pgs. 7-13

Return to parent page