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For whatever reason, we don’t tend to think of Canada as a mecca for artists. “Famous Canadian Painters” seems like it might be the punch line to a bad joke,  but the country has given the world a number of talented and innovative painters over the years.  One such painter was Tom Thomson (1887 – 1917), an Ontario native who lived a short but productive life and died young under what we call “mysterious circumstances.”

Thomson’s life was odd among painters of his era because he was largely self-taught and insulated from, if not totally ignorant of, the influences of European modernism. Despite his relative isolation in Ontario, he developed a post-impressionistic style that paved the way for other Canadian artists. His work resonates with me because his landscapes are familiar; reminding me of the wilds  of Northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His most famous painting, The Jack Pine, recalls for me many nights of camping, surrounded by the fragrant smoke of a campfire fueled by that very species, always my favorite firewood when available.

The Jack Pine (Tom Thomson, 1917)

These aren’t the spectacular landscapes of the Hudson River School but they don’t need to be. They’re cozy and intimate and I can feel myself in those scenes without stretching my imagination. I don’t think of these images so much as Canadian because they are fragments of memories that belong to me, and to everyone who has visited this beautiful country no matter which side of the border they’re on.

Evening, Canoe Lake (Tom Thomson, 1915)

Thomson’s work laid the groundwork for a group of Canadian Painters known as the Group of Seven, who were active early in the 20th Century and were the first major art movement in Canada. I’ve known of and greatly admired the work of one of these seven, Lawren Harris, long before I knew the group existed. They were pioneers of a distinctly Canadian character and they’ve portrayed the essence of their landscape as well as any one, any where, at any time.

The Beaver Swamp (Lawren Harris, 1920)

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