He’s the greatest Canadian painter you’ve never heard of. Well, maybe that’s unfair. If you are Canadian and you are reading this, you probably know who that is in the photo and also have a good guess at the name of the painting beside him. If you are clueless about him and also a Canuck, turn in your Tragically Hip t-shirts to the first Mountie you see: You’re not worthy.
Relax! I’m joking, eh? However, he is the greatest and most influential painter Canada has ever produced. That is the humble opinion of this transplanted ‘Merican. Even though I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and took all those art history courses, I don’t remember ever talking about him or ever seeing his work. But two years into my time here in Ottawa, I went to see his paintings on display at the National Gallery of Canada. I will never forget seeing his paintings live and in person: To paraphrase Bono when speaking of the first time he saw the Clash perform: It wasn’t life or death; it was more important than that.
Tom Thomson (1877-1917) is his name and his story is inspiring and tragic. He was a man of the wilderness and he loved the solitude of a hike in the woods or a canoe ride on a still and silent Ontario lake. He was a mostly self-taught artist who conveyed the natural beauty of his country better than anyone before or since. And he inspired so many, including some of his contemporaries who became known as the Group of Seven. He was a quiet, kind, introspective soul who was a master of color. Every landscape painter in Canada since is a reflection of Tom Thomson and his genius.
Seeing his artwork in person was a profoundly moving experience. I know that sounds cliche but I am not joking when I say I got emotional standing in front of some of the most incredible paintings I had ever seen. Part of that was because I felt I just met someone who I could relate to so strongly; part of it was because at that time I was so far removed from being an artist and found I missed it dearly; and part of it was the sheer power of the work that came from the hand of this master.
Tom Thomson’s life was brilliant and brief. He died, ironically yet fittingly, on a canoe trip on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, Ontario at the age of 39. The presumed cause of death was drowning, despite his vast experience in the wilderness. His life and death are part of Canadian lore. But the real treasure he left behind is his passion: his painting.
Below is a small gallery of his artwork. Photos on a blog cannot do justice to the color and energy in these pieces. If you ever get a chance to see his work in person, Go! See! Experience! It may help you discover just how life-changing a work of art can truly be.