Behind the eyes and in the land: What Tom Thomson saw, and what he may have missed
CBC's Sean Foley explores the landscapes of Algonquin Park which inspired Tom Thomson's work
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, Ontario, 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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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:
- David Huff is curator of collections at the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario.
- Katharine Lochnan is senior curator emeritus at the Art Gallery of Ontario and adjunct professor at Regis College, University of Toronto.
- Peter Larisey, SJ, is an art historian and author of Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris's Work and Life.
- Gerald McMaster is Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, Indigenous visual culture and curatorial practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design University.
- Tom Thomson — Catalogue Raisonné, compiled by Joan Murray
- The Algonquin Ensemble
- University of Toronto Art Centre, Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
**This episode was written and produced by Sean Foley. The music featured in the series is by The Algonquin Ensemble.