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You may not know his name right away, but the impact that Tom Thomson had on Canadian art cannot be understated. As one of the top artists of the early 20th-century, he would influence the more well-known Group of Seven.
Born near Claremonth, Ontario in 1877, he would enter into a machine shop apprenticeship in 1899 through a close friend of his father. Soon after, he was fired for constantly being late. That same year, he attempted to fight in the Second Boer War but was turned away due to a medical condition.
In 1901, he would go to business college in Chatham but would drop out eight months later and travel to Seattle where he would join his brother in operating a business school. Three years later, he would return to Canada.
In Ontario, Thomson joined the Legg Brothers and began photo-engraving with them. In 1908, he joined up with Grip Ltd. and started working on artistic design. It was there he would work with several of the Group of Seven. He would remain with the company until 1912 when he left to join another artist firm.
That same year, he travelled to Algonquin Park and it was there that he would find a major source of inspiration for his paintings.
He would begin working with several artists that year, who would form the Group of Seven,.
One year later, his art was displayed at the Ontario Society of Artists and he would join the organization in 1914. His work would continue to be exhibited there until his death.
Also in 1914, the National Gallery of Canada began to acquire his paintings and this would change his entire life. He would begin living and working with fellow artists and would spend most of his time at Algonquin Park, working as a firefighter, ranger and guide. He disliked the work though, due to the fact it didn’t leave him enough time to paint.
For the next three years, he would produce some of the best-known Canadian artwork including The Jack Pine, The West Wind and The Northern River.
Completely self-taught as an artist, his most creative period would be 1914 to 1917 when James MacCallum served as his patron so he could continue to make art without needing to have a full-time job. Much of his artwork of this time has been compared to that of Vincent Van Gogh.
Sadly, the world would only have him as a full artist for three years until 1917. It was on July 8, 1917 that he disappeared during a canoeing trip on Canoe Lake. His body was found just over one week later.
Upon examination of the body, it was found that he had drowned and the drowning was accidental.
With his death, many have begun wondering if there was more to it than just drowning. Some theorize that he committed suicide, or was even murdered. Some theories say the suicide was over a woman, or due to what he felt was a lack of artistic recognition. Other theories say he was killed by poachers at the park, or was in a fight with two men living at Canoe Lake.
Regardless of how he died, Thomson’s influence is huge. In 2002, the National Gallery of Canada staged a large exhibition of his work and his work has greatly increased in value in recent years.
As well, the artists he worked with would be hugely influenced by his work and would form the iconic Group of Seven.
In addition, Thomson has had a stamp designed in his honour, and several novels have been written about him, and especially his death.
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