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The Group of Seven: a new artistic expression of Canada

The Story

Lawren Harris has come a long way from the Toronto Arts & Letters Club of 1912. Over 40 years later, he's at the Vancouver Art Gallery addressing an appreciative audience about the genesis of Canada's most famous art movement. The Group of Seven met at the Club and in commercial art firms. They were soon united by the idea of a new Canadian style, unfettered by the European influences that then dominated Canadian art. Harris notes that enough time has passed that historians are now interested in the Group. But the painters' efforts to convey the power and beauty of the Canadian landscape weren't met with immediate praise. Even before they were officially united, one critic derided them as the "Hot Mush School."

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: April 9, 1954
Guest(s): Lawren Harris
Duration: 10:38
From a speech at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Photo: Building the Ice House, Hamilton by Lawren Harris, 1912

Did You know?

• The original members of the Group of Seven were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley.

• Johnston later resigned and was replaced by A.J. Casson in 1926. Edwin Holgate of Montreal joined the Group in 1931, as did L.L. FitzGerald of Winnipeg in 1932.

• Though he died before the Group was formed, Tom Thomson worked with most of its members and is closely associated with them.

• The Group was formed for the purpose of exhibiting their art together and "demonstrat[ing] the 'spirit' of painting in Canada," according to Lismer. Revenue from any work that sold went to the artist who painted it.

• The first of the Group's eight exhibitions opened on May 7, 1920 at the Toronto Art Gallery, which is now known as the Art Gallery of Ontario. Their last show, at the same gallery, opened in December 1931.

• Group members -- and Tom Thomson -- met each other through the Arts & Letters Club of Toronto, a social club for men interested in the promotion and enjoyment of literature and the arts. Some also met at two commercial art firms -- Grip Limited and Rous & Mann -- where they worked on advertising or promotional items such as cigar labels.
• Harris and MacDonald met in November 1911 and began taking sketching trips by the following summer.

• Grip Limited was started by Grip Weekly, a Toronto political magazine founded in 1873. The company was founded to make illustrations for the magazine, but soon expanded to contract for other publications. When Thomson joined in 1908, Grip was trying to break into the lucrative advertising business.

• In 1909 Herbert Rous and Frederick Mann purchased the Imrie Printing Co. and renamed it Rous & Mann. Imrie had been one of the first printers in Canada with its own art department.

• In January 1913, Harris and MacDonald travelled to see an exhibition of Scandinavian art in Buffalo, New York. They were struck by the artists' depictions of northern light and landscape and the sense of wonder about their countries. "This is what we want to do with Canada," MacDonald would later remember thinking.

• By 1914, most of the members of the Group, as well as Thomson, had established a pattern of travelling north -- to Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay in Ontario, and the Laurentians in Quebec -- to sketch during the summer. Winters were spent in the studio, translating the small sketches into large canvases.

• The Province of Ontario and The National Gallery of Canada were both early supporters of the Group's work. Under the guidance of Sir Edmund Walker, Ontario bought paintings by MacDonald, Lismer and Thomson in 1913. The next year, the National Gallery -- where Walker was a trustee -- bought paintings by Thomson, Lismer, MacDonald, Harris and Jackson.

• In 1915 the National Gallery paid $500 for Thomson's Northern River, a large canvas.

• Dr. James McCallum was also a great supporter of the group. In 1913 he and Harris began plans to build the Studio Building, a three-storey building with plenty of natural light where artists could rent space cheaply. Jackson, Thomson, MacDonald and Harris, as well as some artists who were not part of the Group, took studios there in early 1914. Unable to afford the rent, Thomson later moved into a shack behind the building.

• The group was branded "The Hot Mush School" in 1913 by a Toronto Star critic. H.F. Gadsby was a fellow member of the Arts & Letters Club, and the article's tone was tongue-in-cheek. MacDonald adopted the name with pride and the painters used it the following year.

• Peter Mellen, author of a 1970 book about the Group, contends they depicted themselves as universally despised by critics when, in fact, few reviews of their exhibitions were negative.


The Group of Seven: Painters in the Wilderness more