Nature through the eyes of Tom Thomson — 100 years after his death

Tom Thomson's is one of the most mythologized Canadian painters of his time — and ours. Now, 102 years after his mysterious death, IDEAS contributor Sean Foley asks one central question: does the mortal and material fascination with Tom Thomson leave us with something enduring — something to carry us through the next century, and beyond?

Demythologizing one of Canada's most mythologized artists

Tom Thomson was an artist and outdoorsman who enjoyed exploring the wilderness of Ontario. He died mysteriously on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in 1917. (Canadian Press/National Archives of Canada PA-121719)

** Originally published on November 9, 2018.

Tom Thomson's paintings are among the most famous and beloved artworks in Canada. Thomson himself is one of the most mythologized Canadians of his time — and ours.

Now, 102 years after his mysterious death on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, when he was at the peak of his powers, IDEAS contributor Sean Foley asks one central question: does the mortal and material fascination with Tom Thomson leave us with something enduring — something to carry us through the next century, and beyond?

Finding beauty in the void 

Tom Thomson didn't — couldn't — leave behind the same detailed traces that we do now. He may not have wanted to.  He didn't seem like an 'Instagram your supper' kind of guy. But then, that's just projection on my part.

When he died suddenly in 1917, he left a few letters, a relatively small number of major paintings, and — the real treasure — hundreds of oil sketches done on boards in one corner or another of Algonquin Park. 

As for us, we're captured on CCTV cameras everywhere we go. We want to show the whole world where we are and what our ideal selves look like. These days, it's not so hard to distract ourselves from the unknowable.

So when we confront the unknowable, how do we react? In this two-part series, I explore what we think we know about Tom Thomson, what distracts us from knowing, and what connects us to the deeper gifts of his life and work.

We'll look at the historical record, and how it's been spun out over the past century. We'll also explore the poetry of Robert Kroetsch, Joyce Wieland's film The Far Shore, and, most powerfully, the paintings Tom left us, many of which he simply gave away to acquaintances, friends, and family.

Tom Thomson | Autumn Birches, 1916 | oil on wood panel | 21.6 x 26.7 cm | Gift of Mrs. H.P. de Pencier. (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Gregory Klages is a historian and author of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction. He has traced the stories about Thomson's life and death back to as many primary sources as he could find. And it's fascinating to see how little factual evidence underpins many of the most popular Thomson tales.

"All sorts of aspects of his life and death and artwork became good hooks or interesting things for us to talk about and speculate on. And sometimes to make an interesting story, to make a provocative story — to insert something a little bit salacious or juicy or to to riff on an idea that made people go 'ooh I never thought of it that way. That's interesting, that's intriguing.' And there's nothing to contradict the idea. So it 'could' be true."

Tom Thomson (1877 ‐ 1917) | Tea Lake Dam 1917 | oil on wood panel | 21.3 x 26.2 cm | Purchase with funds donated by Mr. R.A. Laidlaw (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Just why, and how, do we speculate? Well, we seem to do it reflexively. And we do it in the form of biography and history just as often as we do in fiction and mythology — especially with an elusive character like Tom Thomson. 

Sherrill Grace, a professor Emerita at the University of British Columbia, explores biographies and fictions about Tom Thomson in her book Inventing Tom Thomson. She's also an accomplished biographer herself.

She says we can't — and perhaps shouldn't — think we can capture the 'real person' we're writing about.

The minute we start writing about somebody, or performing something about somebody else's life, we are already creating a fiction story about that person which matters to us; and if the person is dead, that person doesn't give a damn, do they?- Sherrill Grace


But of course we do. Which is probably why we can't stop reading, writing, or even tweeting our own life stories, and those with whom we are fascinated.

Though it has its pitfalls, the mythologizing and the storytelling and the intrigue is part of why I did this series. I had to hear about Tom Thomson to fall in love with his paintings.  British art historian Ian Dejardin first heard about Tom Thomson in the library at the Royal Academy in London. Now he's running the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario — which has nearly 100 Thomson paintings, as well as the actual shack he worked in. 

Tom Thomson | Winter: Sketch for In Algonquin Park, 1914 | oil on wood panel |21.8 x 26.7 cm | Gift of Mr. and Mrs. R.G. Mastin. (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

For Dejardin, it's Thomson's lightning-fast mastery of paint during the last few years of his life that fascinates:

"He suddenly found his language, and he found it in colour and immediacy and also that whole business of being an explorer out there in the 'wilderness' so-called with your canoe. [It] meant that you could only paint on a small scale. You had to paint on a small board that you could then carry in a box. And that fed into his genius as well. Those conversations, that liberation of colour, and the technique that was forced on him by the business of having to carry your stuff into the wilderness in a canoe... resulted in this perfect storm: an absolutely perfect marriage of genius, eyesight, and technique."

And, ultimately, that's what fills the void: beauty, energy, and joy, all rendered in paint.

Tom Thomson | Northern River 1914–15 | Oil on canvas |115.1 cm × 102 cm | National Gallery of Canada. (Wikipedia)

Guests in this episode:

  • Dr. Gregory Klages is a historian and the author of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction (Dundurn Press, 2016).
  • Dr. Sherrill Grace is Professor Emerita at  the University of British Columbia and the author of Inventing Tom Thomson (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004).
  • Ian Dejardin is an art historian and the Executive Director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
  • Pete Telford is Chairman of the Friends of Leith Church, Leith, Ontario.

Related websites:

**This episode was produced by Sean Foley. Music featured in this episode is by The Algonquin Ensemble.