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The boreal muse of The Group of Seven
Creating a national identity from a palette of boreal colours
Story by Mitchell Gray

In Tom Thomson’s painting, The Jack Pine, a ragged tree hovers beside a desolate, yet somehow inviting lake, as timid yellow light looms over dark, snow-pocked hills in the distance. Whether that tree still grows is uncertain, but the painting has grown over time into a Canadian icon, powerfully evoking the heart of Canada: the boreal forest. The woods, lakes and wetlands of the boreal ecosystem cover more than half of Canada, giving us one of the largest contiguous tracts of wilderness remaining in the world. The forest is a commanding force in our physical landscape, and artists the Group of Seven have ensured its legacy as part of our cultural terrain, showcasing it through their art as a powerful symbol of Canadian national identity.

Tom Thompson’s story began in 1907, when he started work in Toronto as a commercial artist at a photo-engraving house, Grip Ltd., with future Group of Seven members James Edward Hervey MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Horsman Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Frank Johnston. In 1912, Thomson first visited Ontario’s Algonquin Park, and found inspiration in the boreal forest there. He came to know the area well, working as a guide and fire fighter in the park, and he shared his inspiration with his colleagues. The artists at Grip Ltd. met frequently at a social club where they formed bonds with the wealthy Torontonians who would become their patrons. Thomson died in 1917, three years before his five Grip Ltd. colleagues and two friends — Lawren Harris and Alexander Young Jackson — formed the Group of Seven, but his role in its history is undeniable. Alfred Joseph Casson, Edwin Holgate and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald later joined the group.


The Group of Seven painters shared an artistic outlook that was disdainful of predominant Canadian styles of the time. They believed the Canadian elite’s generous support for art resembling that of certain French and Dutch movements led to the unfortunate dominance of Canadian landscape art that was too tame, detailed and domesticated. Members of the elite wanted artistic representations of Canada to look settled and modified by human habitation, says Charlie Hill, curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada. But the real Canada didn’t look like an English garden. Most of the country was rugged and sparsely settled. There were cities, of course, but the Group of Seven were not inspired by anything uniquely Canadian about them.

Protecting the boreal
Concerned organizations are working to raise awareness that the Canadian boreal forest is not a pristine, untouched area, but rather an ecological treasure increasingly vulnerable to human interference. Industrial activity, especially forestry, mining and energy concerns, is increasing in boreal areas. “It’s important to ensure that these operations are carried out so that they minimize ecological harm,” says Cathy Wilkinson, director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative. About 80 percent of Canada’s boreal forest is still ecologically healthy, she says, and a large-scale plan for conservation and sustainable forest management is necessary to keep it that way. The Canadian Boreal Initiative has just released such a framework, endorsed by environmental organizations, resource companies and First Nations groups.
Instead, this pioneering collection of artists believed Canada’s uniqueness was found in northern landscapes like that of their favorite Ontario painting locales, and the land of the boreal forest became central to their artistic mission. Most of the paintings, like Harris’ blunt, green and yellow trees reflected in a tranquil lake (“Algonquin Sketch”), or Jackson’s luminous, fire-colored hillsides (“Algoma”), were rugged and wild, and rarely delicate. Many captured a vast expanse, as though the viewer were peering from the flap of a tent in the wilderness, or the window of an airplane skimming a valley floor.

“Their initial aim was to validate the northern landscape in the Canadian imagination and explore its role in the formation of Canadian identity,” says Hill. They succeeded, and maybe too well. “For some, that became the only Canadian landscape.” Through the works of the Group of Seven, the boreal forest became entrenched in Canadian culture.

The construction of culture and identity over time is an intricate process, and certain viewpoints dominate at the expense of others. Given the perspective gained over seven decades since the Group of Seven’s final show in 1931, it becomes clear that what they left out of their paintings, or what was painted but not widely celebrated by the public, was just as important as the canvases that came to define the artists. “They provided a representation of Canada that very large numbers of people responded to, but they gave us a very particular picture of the Canadian landscape,” says John O’Brian, professor of art history at the University of British Columbia. “It was just one representation of a very complex nation, and there were things it did not include.”

Many logging operations, for example, were already active in the boreal forest at the time. In fact, the Group of Seven likely took logging roads to reach many of the areas they painted, O’Brian says. The boreal terrain portrayed as empty and untamed was also home to numerous aboriginal settlements. Such things are captured in certain Group of Seven paintings, but these were not the canvases that typically drew attention and became associated with the group. “They weren’t the paintings people wanted to buy, or museums wanted to display,” says O’Brian.

The Group of Seven painted the boreal forest into the collective Canadian imagination. Three generations later, their art retains its power, but the vision of the boreal forest the painters presented may need updating. The forest is not an untamed, empty wilderness, but rather home and a source of income for many Canadians. This human influence presents conservation challenges that must be addressed to maintain the boreal ecosystem’s unique balance, and allow this iconic landscape to continue its tradition as a muse to Canadian artists.


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