The tree in a land of forests
Ah, “The West Wind.” Out of seemingly solid granite, a pine tree defiantly emerges, giving rise to a painter and, along the way, adding definition to a country.
“The West Wind” is said to be among Tom Thomson’s final canvases and considered among his greatest works. A painting that defined an artist and arguably the spirit of a country.
One hundred years ago today, Thomson disappeared. His body surfaced on Canoe Lake eight days later, on July 16. His death in Ontario’s Algonquin Park remains a mystery. Did he tip his canoe and accidentally drown? Was he involved in a quarrel and murdered after being struck on the head with a paddle, the lake and his canoe used merely as cover-up props?
Thomson, 39, was buried in a nearby cemetery, but an undertaker was summoned later to unearth his body so it could reside in the family plot in Leith, just outside Owen Sound. Even his burial is shrouded in mystery. There is suspicion his body was never moved and some believe he never left Canoe Lake.
Tom Thomson was part of an emerging art movement that gave rise to the Group of Seven, landscape painters who gave Canada artistic prominence. He was a self-taught painter, an artist whose paintings ranged from unremarkable in the beginning to brilliant for having captured a sense of honesty and subtle vibrancy in thunderheads, water, sunsets, leaves and trees of the Canadian landscape.
Thomson was guided by, and equally influenced, a group of trail-blazing artists and friends who shared his passion for capturing the country’s ruggedness. Their names are well-known and today their body of work is considered a national treasure. They were known as the Algonquin School and later became the Group of Seven: Franklin Carmichel, A.J. Casson, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley.
It wasn’t always that way. In the early days of Thomson’s painting, his work and that of his contemporaries was often uncelebrated, even mocked by critics, for their work was considered too raw, too abstract, and not fitting with the norms of the day.
One of the beauties of Thomson’s work is its accessibility. Even 100 years later, a person can hike, drive or paddle to spots in Ontario to see what Thomson saw. You can portage to spots in Algonquin Park, walk the Oxtongue River or wade the shorelines of Canoe Lake where his pigment and passion came together.
Thomson’s anniversary allows us to pause for an artist who is timeless. He lived close to the ground and felt the rain and wind and saw beauty in dead branches. The early critics were wrong.
Thomson left us much, including “The West Wind,” the tree in the forest, a single sweeping tree in a land known for its forests.