Thomas John Thomson (1877 – 1917) was a Canadian artist who, during his short career, produced about 400 oil sketches on small wood panels along with around 50 more significant works on canvas.
His works consist almost entirely of landscapes depicting trees, skies, lakes, and rivers.
In 1912, he visited Algonquin Park, a forest reservation in Central Ontario, and became enchanted with the area and repeatedly returned.
His later work has had a significant influence on Canadian art. His art has a prominent place in the culture of Canada, and his paintings are amongst Canada’s most iconic works.
Thomson’s accidental death at age 39 by drowning came shortly before the founding of the Group of Seven and is seen as a tragedy for Canadian art.
Although he died before the formal establishment of the Group of Seven, Thomson is often considered an unofficial member.
A Virtual Tour of Tom Thomson’s Art
- Lakes and River Landscapes
- 7 Sky Paintings by Tom Thomson
Highlights of Tom Thomson’s Art
“Northern River” by Tom Thomson was inspired by a sketch he completed in the winter of 1914 – 15. It is dominated by the foreground of dark trees, which partially obscures the view of the winding river flowing into the background.
It depicts a river in Algonquin Park, located between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River in Ontario, Canada.
The painting was completed in Thomson’s home base in Toronto and was produced as he was entering the peak of his art career and is considered one of his most notable works.
Study for “Northern River”
The Study for “Northern River” by Tom Thomson was the artist’s first gouache study for the “Northern River” oil painting. The work was brightly colored because gouache reflects more light than oil on canvas.
To make the eventual studio painting livelier, Thomson included reds, oranges, and yellows within the foreground.
The final canvas closely follows the original study, however further foreground space was added to convey the depth, and the trees are more defined, with less foliage.
The West Wind
“The West Wind” by Tom Thomson is based on a slightly different sketch he produced in 1916 while working as a park ranger in Algonquin Park.
In this finished canvas, Thomson moved the pine further to the right, replaced a less defined foreground plane with strongly patterned rock shapes, and removed a dead tree limb from the ground.
The Jack Pine
“The Jack Pine” by Tom Thomson is a representation of the most broadly distributed pine species in Canada. The painting depicts a jack pine as a decorative and abstracted pattern. Its shape is boldly simplified against the sunset.
Thomson’s stylization demonstrates his command of decorative effects, developed during his years as a graphic designer. The sky and lake are painted in long horizontal brushstrokes that show, along with its nearly square format.
The pine, with its branches bowed, rises from a rocky foreground. Thomson made the tree appear larger by lowering the hills on the far side of the lake.
“Round Lake, Mud Bay” by Tom Thomson depicts wild Geese flying back in a “V” shaped formation over Round Lake, Ontario.
Thomson was preoccupied with capturing the sky, especially near the end of his career, from 1915 onward.
In his paintings from 1913 onwards, he consistently utilized the perspective of his canoe. This composition has a narrow foreground of water, a distant shoreline, and a dominating sky.
“Summer Day” by Tom Thomson depicts billowing clouds sailing across the blue sky over a deeper blue cloured lake.
The lake in the foreground is a thin horizontal stretch at the bottom of the painting. On the other side is a green wilderness of Algonquin Park in Ontario, with deep blue colored hills in the distant horizon.
Tom Thomson spent his spring and summers from 1912 to 1917, traveling by canoe, camping at Algonquin Park. He took odd jobs as a ranger and guide, to allow him to complete his sketch of the wilderness landscapes.
Wild Cherries, Spring
“Wild Cherries, Spring” by Tom Thomson depicts the wild cherry trees growing in the wilderness. Two types of wild cherry trees grow in Ontario.
The reddish-brown, with its close-grained wood, is the wild black cherry tree, which produces black fruits.
The wild red cherry trees, also known as pin cherry, produce cherries with a sour taste.
“Northern Lights” by Tom Thomson depicts an aurora, also referred to as northern lights. It is a natural light display in the Earth’s sky, predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions around the Arctic and Antarctic.
Thomson produced roughly two dozen nocturnes. Thomson often spent his nights lying in his canoe in the middle of the lake, stargazing.
Besides capturing the nighttime sky, he also captured silhouettes of spruce, birch trees, and the northern lights, painting five different sketches of the aurora.
“Sunset” by Tom Thomson was painted at the water level in a canoe. It illustrates his excited brushstrokes as he captured the lake’s reflection.
The painting was executed over a grey-green ground, adding depth to both the light of the sky and the reflecting water.
The 1915 volcanic eruption of Lassen Peak in California provided dramatic sunrises and sunsets in the northern hemisphere for the year.
Sketch for Morning Cloud
“Sketch for Morning Cloud” by Tom Thomson depicts the morning clouds over the wilderness the artists loved. Thomson learned of the Algonquin Park from fellow artist Tom McLean.
In 1912, aged 34, he first visited the Park, venturing through the area on a canoe trip, and discovered Canoe Lake Station and camping nearby on Smoke Lake.
He returned as often as he could to the lake views to sketch his sky landscapes during different seasons and light conditions.
Sky (The Light that Never Was)
“Sky (The Light that Never Was)” by Tom Thomson depicts the light that Thomson saw during an early morning in 1913.
The horizon is disappearing, and pure movement is left behind as the sun rises on an out-of-focus wilderness.
Tom Thomson had spent all night in his canoe out on the Canoe Lake in Algonquin Reserve, located between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River in Ontario, Canada.
- Name: Thomas John Thomson
- Born: 1877 – Claremont, Ontario
- Died: 1917 (aged 39) – Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada
- Nationality: Canadian
- Movements: Art Nouveau, Group of Seven
- Notable works:
A Tour of Famous Artists You Should Know
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Tom Thomson Quotes
“Take everything as it comes; the wave passes, deal with the next one.”
“No matter how much you disagree with your kin, if you are a thoroughbred, you will not discuss their shortcomings with the neighbors.”
“The maples are about all stripped of leaves now, but the birches are very rich in color… the best I can do does not do the place much justice in the way of beauty.”
“I’ll stick to painting as long as I can.”
“We’re going to drive the people off the land who have been living on it and working it for generations. It’s going to destroy our No. 1 industry: tourism.”
“It was not as many as you would think.”
The Canadians: Tom Thomson
Tom Thomson: A collection of 179 works
NORTHERN LIGHT – The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him
“Take everything as it comes; the wave passes, deal with the next one.”
– Tom Thomson
Photo Credit: Mary Cassatt [Public domain]