Behind the eyes and in the land: What Tom Thomson saw, and what he may have missed

IDEAS contributor Sean Foley explores the landscapes of Algonquin Park which inspired Tom Thomson's work — while also examining Indigenous artists' perspectives of the same landscapes that Thomson and the Group of Seven may have missed. This is the second episode in a two-part exploration of the Canadian painter.

CBC's Sean Foley explores the landscapes of Algonquin Park which inspired Tom Thomson's work

Tom Thomson | The Pointers, 1916-1917 | oil on canvas | 102.2 x 116.5 cm | Hart House Collection | Purchased by the Art Committee with the Print Fund, 1928/29. (Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto)

** Originally published on December 14, 2018.

By Sean Foley

Many of us just can't resist a good pilgrimage, whether it's a religious one or not. The soul desires a deeper connection with whatever truly moves us.

The late Canadian painter Tom Thomson has inspired many such pilgrimages. People often travel to where he's thought to be buried, in the family plot at Leith, Ont., or in a tiny cemetery beside Canoe Lake, in Algonquin Park, where he died under mysterious circumstances in 1917.

What strikes a deeper chord in me, though, is discovering the places he painted: the sites that made him set down his things and open his painting box.

In the fall of 2018, while my brother Adam and I were portaging between two small lakes in the northeastern reaches of Algonquin Park, I heard rushing water way back in the woods. I stopped to take a look, making my way through the undergrowth, holding on to tree trunks.

What I found was almost certainly the subject of a canvas painted during his last winter, in his shack in Toronto: Woodland Waterfall. It was exhilarating to discover something that Thomson himself laid eyes on and was moved to paint.

Left: Tom Thomson | Woodland Waterfall, 1916-1917 | oil on canvas | 121.9 x 132.5 cm | Purchased 1977 with Funds Donated by The W. Garfield Weston Foundation. Right: CBC's Sean Foley came across this waterfall in Algonquin Park, Ont., that may have been the inspiration for Woodland Waterfall.

Others have spent lots of time and effort tracking these sites down and documenting them, including Jim and Sue Waddington and the McElroys of Point Alexander. I'm just another pilgrim with a yearning to walk in Thomson's footsteps.
Left: Tom Thomson | Petawawa Gorges, 1916 | oil on wood panel | 21.4 x 26.5 cm | Purchased with funds donated by Major F.A. Tilston, V.C. Right: Barron Canyon in Algonquin Park, Ont.

The essence of the place

There were occasions of even deeper connection: I wasn't just "matching" sites and paintings. I was seeing and feeling those dynamics of weather, terrain, and sheer serendipity that must have struck Thomson. These were the experiences of just being alive in that place.

It occurs to me all the time, standing in front of a little sketch, or even a finished painting by Tom Thomson. You feel you're behind the eyes; so there is that personal identification with him, too.- Ian Dejardin, executive director,  The McMichael Canadian Collection

Here's what I mean. One evening, Adam and I camped on a peninsula jutting out into a small lake called Opalescent. We felt — and heard — the west wind, moving trees for miles around in a great chorus of branches and leaves and needles rustling against one another.

A light rain blew in, and moved on, and a rainbow appeared. Then, as the sun went down, the cloud patterns and the dappled water spoke for hours in a familiar voice.

We weren't "in" a specific Thomson work; I have no idea what paintings he might have done on this lake, but we were immersed in the same phenomena that moved him.

Left: Tom Thomson | Sunset, 1915 | oil on grey wood-pulp board | 21.6 x 26.7 cm | National Gallery of Canada. Right: The sun sets over Opalescent Lake in Algonquin Park in Ontario.

Reading the landscape

On the first day of our Algonquin pilgrimage, Adam and I went the wrong way. We couldn't see the inlet where the portage was, and we were paddling into a headwind, taunted by whitecaps. Eventually we got across the lake into a narrows, and things calmed down enough for us to realize we had to turn around. Only later did I see a note on the map that we had paddled past some petroglyphs — twice.

Petroglyphs — drawings on rock made by the Anishinaabe, the Indigenous people of this land — point us to an even more profound way of seeing and experiencing, one quite apart from the western school of landscape art of Thomson and the Group of Seven.

Left: Tom Thomson | Sumac in Autumn (alternative title: Red Sumac), 1916 | oil on composite wood-pulp board | 21.6 x 26.8 cm | Collection of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery. Right: A bright red shock of maple leaves seen in Algonquin Park, Ont.

Gerald McMaster is a professor of Indigenous visual culture and curatorial practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto.

He was part of the team that reinstalled the Canadian collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2008. He juxtaposed Thomson's West Wind with two quillwork bags made by Anishinaabe artists in the late 18th century. These bags depicted the Thunderbird and the Mishipeshu, forces that he saw at work in Thomson's painting.

I asked McMaster ​what he might hang with The Pointers, one of my favourite Thomson canvases, painted during the winter of 1916-1917. He thought immediately of the great Anishinaabe painter Norval Morrisseau.

2008 installation view of Tom Thomson’s The West Wind, Art Gallery of Ontario. Left: Ojibwa, Tobacco Pouch, early 18th century. Tanned hide, porcupine quills, sinew, glass beads, vegetal dyes. Private Collection. Middle: Flat Pouch, 1780, Ottawa/ Great Lakes Region, Black-dyed deer skin, porcupine quills, sinew thread, vegetal dyes, D: 2 in.x L: 10.5 in. x W: 8 in., Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Eugene V.Thaw Art Foundation, Thaw Collection, T0007. Right: Tom Thomson, The West Wind,Winter 1916-1917. Oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.9 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1926. (Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario)

"He studied his elders. He studied perhaps some of the pictographs that you'd see on the rock surfaces in Northern Ontario, Midewiwin scrolls that are often studied by religious leaders ... and created his own peculiar style ... quite colourful like Thomson," he said.

"But he's not creating a landscape like a landscape painter. [He's] rather reading the landscape, what's in the landscape: the spirits, the animals, the fish below and the interrelation of everything."

In 1979, Morrisseau was invited by the McMichael Canadian Collection to take up residence in Thomson's shack, on the gallery's grounds in Kleinburg, Ontario.

Norval Morrisseau as artist-in-residence in the Thomson Shack at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, Ont., on July 11, 1979. (Ian Samson/McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives)

Morrisseau created some stunning paintings during that time; one of the most famous ones is called Shaman and Disciples. It communicates a powerful message of vision and wisdom almost immediately.

McMaster points to a deep and illuminating expression of land and spirituality being expressed by a whole new generation of Indigenous artists, like Christi BelcourtLisa Myers and Michael Belmore.

Norval Morrisseau | Shaman and Disciples 1979 | acrylic on canvas | 180.5 x 211.5 cm | Purchased 1979 (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

"It goes back to that Indigenous knowledge of the land," said McMaster.

"They're studying the land so remarkably and intellectually and in an articulate way … I could see that kind of artist juxtaposed together with Thomson ... because again it's a Northern Ontario landscape.

"We're just looking at it differently. Artists are looking at the same thing in a different way."

Guests in this episode:

Related links:


**This episode was written and produced by Sean Foley. The music featured in the series is by The Algonquin Ensemble. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?