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In the early 1900’s a group of Canadian artists started to go against the conservative manner of the art being brought to and produced in their country. They felt the need to create an art that had a uniquely Canadian style and identity, and not a product of incoming European culture. Although this group was not exclusively portraying landscapes from the beginning, this tendency grew as the artists are more interested in the wilderness of their homeland.
The group moved away from naturalism and the mimesis of nature’s effects and used nature to express their emotions e feelings in a romantic and sometimes mystical way. This attitude went against the pre-established standard of the XIX century art. Their work was influenced by the aesthetics of other modern artists who had the same concern for an art free from Academic terms, like Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and Edvard Munch.
The group was initially formed by Lawren Harris, Tom Thomson, James Edward Harvey MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, and Franklin Carmichael – most of which worked with commercial illustration and design at the beginning of their careers. They start to get together to sketch and discover their shared interests in art, discussing the need for change in the Canadian art world.
They strived to paint together as much as possible, inside or outside of the studio so to work similarly. 1920, the group organized their first exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto and called themselves the Group of Seven. This show marked the direction the group would take, with an emphasis on producing landscapes, using bright colors and thick layers of paint. Art critics would look down on collectors who bought these paintings, for these works went against the Classic nature of the Canadian art scene of the time. The galleries in Canada very rarely showed artists of their own country and the Group of Seven saw a need to bring back real Canadian art to the spotlight. They counted with great help and support from the director of Canada’s National Gallery at the time, Eric Brown.
Harris is considered the boldest of the painters, for, after their first exhibition, he depicts colors and compositions in a drastically simplified way. Eventually, in the mid-1920’s, the figures he uses in his paintings are almost monochromatic and extremely primary. The painter is known for being one of the first artists from Canada to work with abstract painting. Tom Thomson was deeply inspired by the nature of his country and portrayed this passion in his work. With loose brush strokes, vibrant colors and a Post-Impressionist inspired style, Thomson was able to paint the stillness in The Jack Pine and also the rapidness in Swift Water.
The importance of the use of color is seen clearly in the work of Lismer, as he was able to use this in his favor to set the perfect atmosphere, as seen in the warm Hillside. In contrast to this scene, the artist used rich tonalities of blue and violet to depicts a more cool and soothing landscape in Georgian Bay, Spring. Working more on the fantastical and mystical side, Johnston produces works like The Guardian of the Gorge. MacDonald shared his amazement for the mystical, and it reflected on his paintings as well. In Tangled Garden, he colorfully paints a garden in a romantic and not idealized manner. The painter dominates his use of color in a sense that he creates surreal-type scenes, like in the inspired Falls – Montreal River.
Regardless of the group’s name, they ended up excepting new artists to join later on. In 1926, Harris met Emily Carr, an artist who was cast aside for being a woman in a male-dominated field. Harris welcomes her to the Group of Seven’s artistic family, giving her a platform to develop her work and achieving the title of being one of Canada’s most prestigious modern artists.
The Group of Seven had a great influence on the public as well as the new generation of artists to come. Canadians were now experiencing a truly authentic art from their homeland and artists were starting to understand the artistic freedom that was conquered during the modern times. The group had their last exhibition in 1931 and officially ended a couple of years later, but their aesthetic preferences and ideals echoed through the country’s history, drastically changing the cultural and artistic scene in Canada.