Back in June, I had the pleasure of exploring the beautiful Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal (Montréal Museum of Fine Arts). To my delight, their collection of Quebec and Canadian art had a large number of Group of Seven pieces, (alongside exquisite Tom Thomson and Emily Carr paintings—two people who were often associated with the Group, but were never actually a part of it). The original Group consisted of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank (Franz) Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. Macdonald and Frederick Varley. Group of Seven are synonymous with Canadian art. On the one hand, it is easy to see why. Just look at their work:
However, the academic side of me wants a more fleshed out answer—one that is not based on personal taste. The Group of Seven were certainly not the first Canadian painters, nor were they the first vocal nationalists. With this in mind, why are the Group of Seven so iconic in Canadian art?
Carmichael, Johnston, Lismer, MacDonald, and Varley met at Grip Limited, a graphic design firm in Toronto, and later befriended Jackson and Harris at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. These seven men were drawn together by a common desire to carve out new territory in Canadian art. Prior to the Group, European styles and influences dominated the art scene in Canada. They wanted to break away from this and craft a separate, uniquely Canadian identity that captured the magnificence of the country’s landscape and their love of it.
Following the interruption of the First World War and the untimely death of Tom Thomson (whose paintings of the Georgian Bay area and Algonquin Park inspired the Group greatly), the seven resumed their work. They travelled across Ontario and later the country, using bold colours and sweeping brush strokes to capture the “untouched” northland. In doing so, they developed an approach—an idealistic representation of Canada—that was starkly different from anything that had come before them.
You wouldn’t think paintings of wide skies, lonely pine trees, and lush forests would offend people but pearls were clutched and monocles popped off at their first exhibition together at the Art Gallery of Toronto, (which later became the Art Gallery of Ontario) in 1920. Not knowing what to call themselves, they had decided on “The Group of Seven” and ran with it. Art critics derailed their paintings as distasteful; too decadent for the gloomy postwar era and an insult to common decency. The Group was used to this sort of reception, having dealt with it since 1914 when they began to publicly display their art. They fought back through self-promotion and carried on full steam ahead with their emphasis on Canadian identity and national pride. They rejected the colonial mentality—in which anything European was automatically better than anything Canadian.
Nationalism is an intrinsic part of their work and the emergence of the Group in the larger public eye coincided with the surge of national fervor that came about in Canada following the First World War. World War I is often labeled at a turning point in our nation’s history as we ~went in as a colony and emerged as a country~ on the international scene. With Canadians more aware of their distinctiveness, the public became more receptive of the Group of Seven’s art that expressed Canada’s distinct landscape and beauty. Hence, the views of the conservative establishment did not reflect overall public opinion. Furthermore, the controversy surrounding the Group actually helped to develop their prestige as it generated a level of public discussion about Canadian art that had not existed prior. Great excitement and new ideas about artistic value and what it meant to be Canadian came about. The Group believed indifference would hamper the emerging Canadian art scene and as such and encouraged criticism from the public, both positive and negative.
Despite the rise in their prestige over the 1920s—eight Group exhibitions were held in total—the spirit of the group began to decline during this era as members began to turn towards individual initiatives and projects. Their last exhibition was in 1931 and they formally disbanded in 1933. However, during their last exhibition, they included contributions of 28 other artists. Their goal of expanding the Canadian art scene had been realized.
Whether or not one likes their work, the Group of Seven had a significant impact on not just the Canadian art scene, but in the development of Canadian identity. The late J. Russell Harper, one of Canada’s most respected art historians, perfectly summarized why they are such a big deal. The Group of Seven were not the first nationalists, but they were “the first to make artists and public listen and observe.” That consciousness of being national painters, boosted by the growing public awareness of Canadian distinctiveness, in addition to the many subsequent artists who were influenced by their work make the Group of Seven iconic.
J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History, University of Toronto Press (1977)
Ross King, Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, Douglas & McIntyre (2010).
David Silcox, The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, Firefly Books, (2006). (This is a gorgeous book to flip through, by the way.)