Tom Thomson: Life and Work brings a Canadian icon into the Digital Age

By Stephen Dale on January 13, 2016

For seasoned art historian David Silcox, there are two key factors that explain why Canadians remain fascinated with Tom Thomson close to a hundred years after his death.

The first and most obvious is the appeal of the work itself: the way in which Thomson’s intuitive and emotion-filled interpretations of Algonquin Park captured something essential about the spirit of the land and people’s relationship to it. Then there is the painter’s life story — his mercurial rise and early, mysterious death by drowning — which continues to feed the Thomson mystique and public perception of the artist as a doomed genius.

“His life fits the pattern of the classic tragic hero,” said Silcox, in an interview with NGC Magazine. “He came out of nowhere and then had a moment of absolute brilliance, like a comet racing across the sky.  He took off spectacularly in 1913–1914, but by 1917 it was all over.”


Studio portrait of Tom Thomson as a successful young commercial artist (c. 1910). The Morrison Family Collection. Photo courtesy of the Art Canada Institute

Both of these elements are explored in a lively and accessible fashion in Silcox’s new e-book, Tom Thomson: Life and Work, published by the Art Canada Institute (ACI). Founded in 2012, the ACI is a Toronto-based non-profit research organization, promoting the study of Canadian art history in Canada and abroad. The organization has worked with more than 50 of Canada’s leading art historians, curators, and visual culture experts, including National Gallery curators Katerina Atanassova, Adam Welch and Christine Lalonde, as well as Gallery Director Marc Mayer. The National Gallery is also one of the ACI’s institutional partners.

At the centre of Silcox’s visually entrancing Tom Thomson e-book are high-quality reproductions of a large number of the artist’s works, along with images of work by Thomson’s contemporaries, and a generous selection of photographs. Silcox’s prose, meanwhile, is insightful and passionate, yet also to-the-point.

The book’s opening chapter takes readers on a brisk tour of Thomson’s life, from his comfortable childhood in the Ontario hamlet of Claremont, through his early career as a commercial artist, to the onset of his infatuation with Algonquin Park and his fruitful associations with his patron, Dr. James MacCallum, and with future members of the Group of Seven. The story ends, of course, with the tragic canoe accident that took Thomson’s life at age 40.  


Tom Thomson, Sunset (1915), oil on composite wood-pulp board, 21.6 x 26.7 cm. NGC. Bequest of Dr. J.M. MacCallum, Toronto, 1944

Subsequent chapters — on “Key Works,” “Significance and Critical Issues” and Style and Technique” — chart the stages in Thomson’s rapid artistic evolution and explain how his unique vision took form. For example, from Northern River (1915), Silcox extracts a lesson on Thomson’s approach to transforming a sketch into a studio painting. Other works, such as Sunset (1915) and Approaching Snowstorm (1915), he holds up as examples of Thomson’s increasing success in moving beyond mere technique to capture the emotional essence of his subject matter.

Like other ACI e-books, this publication also contains a “Where to Find” chapter listing galleries with the Thomson paintings in their collections. This is a useful section for any fan contemplating a pilgrimage to see Thomson’s actual works, and exemplifies the raison d’être of ACI’s publishing program: building a bridge between fine art, best experienced in the three-dimensional world, and a contemporary culture in which most experiences take place online.

Publishing books in three electronic formats, explains ACI’s founding executive director Sara Angel, has given the Institute an expanded reach. While the PDF and mobile formats allow art enthusiasts to read the full work on a bus or a plane, the fully searchable desktop version attracts many more readers searching for specific morsels of information. Beyond broadening awareness of Canadian art, ACI is also attempting to “redefine the canon,” says Angel, by bringing lesser-known Canadian artists into the spotlight.

Either way, ACI’s approach recognizes that “increasingly, people’s first experience of anything takes place online.” NGC Director Marc Mayer, who calls ACI ”the best news in Canadian art in a long time,” believes its e-book series (available free online) has introduced Canadian artists not just to young people but also people outside Canada. “Canada has really been in the shadow of every other great art-producing country,” he told NGC Magazine. “Personally, I've become impatient with so few people knowing about the great artists we’ve produced. And unless the world knows about them, Canadians tend to be indifferent. ACI has come up with a wonderful strategy to begin solving that old problem.”


Tom Thomson, After the Storm (1917), oil on wood panel, 21.5 x 26 cm. Private collection. Photo courtesy of the Art Canada Institute

Silcox says, meanwhile, that despite his status as a Canadian icon, Thomson’s story still seizes the imagination. For example, After the Storm (1917), which is likely Thomson’s last painting, shows the artist on the verge of striking out in an entirely different direction than his Group of Seven colleagues. It begs the haunting question of what Thomson might have gone on to do, had his canoe not overturned that fateful day in Algonquin Park.

Tom Thomson: Life and Work is available for free download from the ACI website. Tom Thomson’s extensive correspondence with MacCallum — the James R. MacCallum Fonds  — can be viewed by appointment at the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada.

By Stephen Dale| January 13, 2016
Categories:  Recommendations

About the Author

Stephen Dale

Stephen Dale

Ottawa writer Stephen Dale's latest book is Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War (Fernwood Books, 2014).

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