Tom Thomson
(1877-1917)

Tom Thomson is the unicorn of Canadian art history. A practically mythical creature, he holds an iconic place in Canadian culture and a legendary influence over the way Canadians have come to see themselves. His oil paintings of the Ontario North cannot be underestimated for their powerful contribution to the development of Canadian nationalism. His frequent sketching trips to the wilderness areas north of Toronto served as the prototype for those taken by the Group of Seven artists who followed and were directly inspired by Thomson. He drowned at the age of 39 under mysterious circumstances in Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park and though he is often credited as being a member of the Group of Seven, he passed away before it was ever formed. However, he will forever be closely associated with the Group and worked as a commercial designer in Toronto alongside Group artists including A.Y. Jackson and Franklin Carmichael when he began painting in 1911. Thomson took many trips to Algonquin Park, often disappearing for days, only to return with piles of small oil sketches produced in the wild (many of which are on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection). By 1913, he was working as an artist full-time out of the Studio Building in Toronto, built by Lawren Harris, where he developed sketches made in the wild into thoughtfully rendered full-size paintings. Though he sold a work to the National Gallery of Canada in 1914, Thomson sold few paintings during his short lifetime. Since his death, his works, few in number, have become among the most valuable pieces of art by any Canadian artist. Interest in Thomson has increased dramatically since his death and several memorials, including books and films about his life, have been produced.

Though nearly 30 years after Thomson’s death, A.Y. Jackson selected his friend’s most iconic works to be turned into silkscreens by Sampson-Matthews for the wartime art program. “Northern River” (1915) and “Northern Lights” (1916), both in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada, exemplify Thomson’s honest attempt to capture the character of the northern landscape in a poetic manner informed by direct experience and careful examination. The Sampson-Matthews silkscreens of the same names, from 1943 and 1947-1953 respectively, were based on these important paintings and were among the most popular images produced by the firm. A.J. Casson, who supervised nearly all of the works in the Sampson-Matthews silkscreen art program, worked carefully on these silkscreens, as well as “Portage, Ragged Lake” (1947-1953) and “Joe Creek” (1945-1948), to capture the colours and atmosphere of the paintings as accurately as possible. These works offer scenes of the untouched Canadian wilderness, completely devoid of the presence of man, as perceived by the woodsman, naturalist and artist, Tom Thomson.