Tom Thomson, the guide and woodsman of Algonquin Park, who did such remarkable paintings of forest and river scenery, was not, as popular legend would have it, an entirely self-taught painter. Although he had never been to art school, he yet had had a long apprenticeship in commercial engraving studios, both in Seattle and in Toronto. Nor was he a woodsman born and bred, but, rather, an Ontario farm boy, who as a young man had taken a job in a machine shop and had then gone on to business school before learning the trade of photo-engraving.
Thomson was thirty-five years of age when he decided to make a fresh start and take up oil painting as a profession. In this decision he was encouraged by his friend, the artist J. E. H. MacDonald, who had helped him with his first oil sketches, done on weekends in the vicinity of Toronto. Another stimulus came from the enthusiasm which had been engendered in him by memories of his first exciting summer spent in the northern woods. In 1912, he made a canoe trip of several weeks through some of the more isolated sections of Algoma, taking his paint box along, and brought back small sketches of the deep forests, the rushing rivers and the solemn hills. This was an experience which he never forgot, and from it sprang that passion for the northland which became the direct spur to his future career. From then onwards he was deeply attracted to life in the forest, and in 1913 gave up his routine job in the city in order to be able to spend most of the year in Algonquin Park. There, he painted regularly.
In the winters, he returned to Toronto, where, for a few months early in 1914, he shared a studio with A. Y. Jackson. From this artist, who had an excellent feeling for the more subtle tones of colour in painting, he acquired many valuable hints as to the use of pigments. His earlier sketches had been relatively murky, but by the end of 1914 “he was making amazing strides, his colour becoming richer, his compositions freer and bolder’’.
During the next few years, until his death in 1917, he did his best and most original work. In the canvases, ‘Spring Ice’ and ‘Jack Pine,’ he demonstrated clearly his own personal gifts of expression, evident in the force and intensity of the wide strokes of pure pigment which he employed. These gifts appear also in his use of broad patterns of colour. The quality of virility, of quick sharp perception and of directness of application can be seen best in his small sketches in oils — now highly treasured. The finest selection of them is in the collection owned by the National Gallery of Canada.
Tom Thomson, six feet two inches in height, was largely built but graceful, with black hair and a finely shaped nose. Known as an excellent companion and a fisherman of skill, he became a guide of repute. In the North, when he required money, he would work gladly at whatever manual job might come his way, even if it were only the clearing of underbrush for a camp site.
His career as a painter was, however, destined to last but a few short years. Hardly had he begun to establish his reputation, to be known outside of a small circle of admirers, when he was drowned in a tragic canoe accident in Algonquin Park in 1917. Upon the cairn erected as a memorial to him on the shores of Canoe Lake, his friends described him as “artist, woodsman and guide — who lived humbly but passionately with the wild.”
Perhaps his special and more original qualities as a Canadian landscape painter were summed up most accurately by A. Y. Jackson, when he wrote: “Not knowing all the rules and conventions regarding what is beautiful, he found it all beautiful: muskegs, burnt trees, drowned land, log chutes, beaver dams, northern lights, the flight of wild geese.”
His distinctive contribution was to have discovered that besides the majestic rivers, the romantic sunsets, the autumn glories of the forest, there were also other less obvious aspects of the northland which could be painted with equal beauty and conviction. He saw that, if you were deeply and sincerely enough aware of your wilderness surroundings, then even a patch of tangled undergrowth could become the subject of a rich and glowing painting. It was not the illustrated wonders of the tourist folders, the beauty spots portrayed on picture postcards which interested him; it was, rather, the authentic “monotonous” North, the hillsides of ragged timber, the rock-strewn slopes and the small lakes, repeating themselves endlessly. These composed the landscape he loved, and these were the scenes he rendered with such passion and realism.