A Like Vision: The Group of Seven at 100 - part 1

Lawren S. Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frank (Franz) Johnston

By McMichael Canadian Art Collection

“The group of seven artists whose pictures are here exhibited have for several years held a like vision concerning Art in Canada.”

Lawren Harris, catalogue of the inaugural Group of Seven exhibition, May 1920.

On May 7, 1920, seven artists sharing “a like vision” launched a new movement in Canadian art at an exhibition in the Art Museum of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). This “Group of Seven” were all men: Lawren Stewart Harris, James Edward Hervey MacDonald, Alexander Young Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Horsman Varley, Franklin Carmichael, and Francis Hans (Frank, later Franz) Johnston. The groundwork for the formation of the Group was arguably in place by 1913–14 but had been interrupted by events, including the outbreak of the First World War, in which four (Harris, Jackson, Lismer, and Varley) were directly involved and which abruptly ended Carmichael’s studies in Antwerp.

The members of the Group were friends, all established artists, several of them colleagues working together as commercial artists. Harris, an heir to the Massey-Harris farm-machinery-manufacturer fortune, was the only independently wealthy member. His wealth certainly helped, but it was his drive, energy, and determination that identified him as the de facto leader. It was at his mansion at 63 Queen’s Park, Toronto, that six of the seven met to found the Group of Seven in March 1920. Jackson was absent, painting in Georgian Bay. There was one other, still painful, absence. Tom Thomson, artist friend, colleague, and inspiration, had tragically drowned in Canoe Lake in July 1917. Harris later wrote that Thomson was “as vital to the movement, as much a part of its formation and development, as any other member.”

Mt. Lefroy (1930) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Lawren S. Harris (1885–1970)

Lawren Harris’s wealth, as one of the heirs to the Massey-Harris farm-machinery-manufacturing fortune, allowed him the privilege of choosing his career as an artist and paid for the education he needed. 

Sentinels (c. 1926) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

He studied at the Central Technical School and St. Andrew’s College in Toronto but was also able to spend four years of intense study of art in Berlin. Always dynamic, he was also spiritually inclined, and like many contemporaries in the cultural world of that time, he was a Theosophist.    

Snow Fantasy (c. 1917) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Ultimately, Harris was the driving force behind the Group of Seven, but his efforts to create a new, modern, and distinctive visual language for Canadian art began long before 1920. He had identified a kindred spirit in 1911 at an exhibition by J.E.H. MacDonald. The pair travelled to Buffalo in 1912 to see the great touring exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian art, which inspired them both.

SNOW FANTASY, c. 1917

Snow Fantasy is in fact a fragment of a painting Harris exhibited in 1917 that had been cut down to its present size by 1963. We know Harris apparently gave another canvas to Keith and Edith MacIver as a wedding gift. However, we have no documentation from Harris or the MacIvers about either painting. We do not know where, when, why, or by whom a blanket of snow was cut from Snow Fantasy’s bottom half, or what happened to the cut-away piece, although it has been plausibly suggested that it may have been damaged in a flood in the basement of the Studio Building, where canvasses were stored.

Little House (c. 1911) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

He, along with their early supporter, Dr. James MacCallum, paid for and built the Studio Building in Rosedale (still standing), providing a physical base for the new movement that he was fostering.  

In the Ward (1922) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

His early work included urban scenes, but for him, as for all the future Group members, Tom Thomson’s legacy was of crucial importance. 

Northern Lake (c. 1923) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Trips to Algoma from 1918, and later to the North Shore of Lake Superior, saw him develop a landscape style characterized by flat colours and increasingly abstract formalized shapes very different from the more painterly touch of the other members.  

Country North of Lake Superior #2 (c. 1921) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

The Ice House (1925) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Ellesmere Island (c. 1930) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

In the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic, he found the sublime subjects that inspired his most famous imagery before he eventually moved on to pure abstraction.    

Mt. Lefroy (1930) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

MOUNT LEFROY, 1930

Paintings such as Mount Lefroy, and Mount Robson were larger than most contemporary North American paintings. These monumental paintings of the Canadian Rockies are also closer to abstractions than descriptions of topography. Their geometric compositions heighten their abstraction, partly by confounding our ability to read scale, and by eliminating detail, making mountains look like magnified crystals. By confounding scale, amplifying depth, and limiting colours, Harris created idealized mountains that are as bold, big, and abstract as anything painted in Canada at the time.

Painting No.2, 1939-41 (1939 - 1941) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Lawren Harris’s artistic evolution never stopped. More than any other member of the Group of Seven, his long life, health, and artistic drive kept him pushing the limit of his creativity. After training in Berlin, leading the Group in Toronto, then painting abstractions in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he painted luminous abstractions in Vancouver. 

Abstraction (c. 1967) by Lawren S. Harris (1885 - 1970)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

ABSTRACTION, c. 1967

From the 1910s to the 1960s Harris’s appreciation of light was a constant. Coupled with his belief in the potential for spiritual elevation and his awareness of post-war American abstraction, Abstraction extends Mount Lefroy and Painting No. 2 1939–41 in new visual language.

Aurora, Georgian Bay, Pointe au Baril (1931) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

J.E.H MacDonald (1873–1932)


Jim MacDonald was born in Durham, England, to a Canadian father and English mother. He moved to Canada at fourteen. 

He started his career as a commercial artist, working at the Toronto firm Grip Ltd. from 1895, with one interlude at Carlton Studio in London. Tom Thomson, Arthur Lismer, Frank Johnston, and Franklin Carmichael all worked for Grip, but MacDonald was the first to leave to pursue a career as an artist, in 1911, organizing a small show of his work at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. 

In November (1917) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

In the years before the foundation of the Group of Seven, his work was the target of some pretty hostile criticism.   

Harvest Evening Moon (1917) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

HARVEST EVENING MOON, 1917

MacDonald’s Harvest Evening shows a farm field, and LeMoine FitzGerald’s The Harvester  shows a labourer toting wheat sheaves, but Harvest Evening Moon is unlike any other painting in this exhibition. It is from a vein of MacDonald’s painting of the 1910s featuring scenes of labour and leisure in city and country. To us, the painting suggests an evocative nostalgia for a disappearing agrarian life, but its painting style was innovative for the time in Canada.

Harvest Evening (1920) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

MacDonald worked through various styles of landscape painting before arriving at his brightly coloured and painterly signature brand of Post-Impressionism. 

Leaves in the Brook (1919) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

From oil sketch to finished canvas, J.E.H. MacDonald barely changed the composition of Leaves in the Brook. Even the number and colour of leaves on the rocks remain almost identical. The big difference lies in how he painted. The sketch has mostly thick strokes direct from the tube or slightly mixed on his palette. In the canvas, the brush strokes’ texture and direction emphasize the brook’s turbulence. The canvas’s heightened contrast between static reddishbrown rocks and dynamic blue water diagonally dividing the composition gives it a decorative, near abstract, appeal only suggested in the sketch.

Forest Wilderness (1921) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

As in Harris’s case, Algoma provided the inspiration to work through the influence of the recently drowned Tom Thomson, and his style came to fruition there, where he produced some of his greatest work.

Beaver Dam and Birches (c. 1919) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Like Thomson, MacDonald was a particular master of the small, spontaneous oil sketch executed in the open air. MacDonald excelled in his medium-sized paintings and especially in his oil sketches. Each sketch interpreted a new experience in the land as he changed his colours, compositions, and forms to suit the terrain. Beaver Dam and Birches exemplifies MacDonald’s immediate and intuitive response to a scene. Using a limited palette of white, red, yellow, viridian green, blue, and other secondary colours mixed from the primaries, rendered with thick and thin passages of paint, MacDonald flawlessly evokes a still moment in nature.

Lake McArthur, Lake O'Hara Camp (c. 1924) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

From 1924, McDonald spent his summers in the Rockies, where he developed a distinct new style in response to the landscapes he saw there, with flat planes of colour and almost abstract forms.

Lichen Covered Shale Slabs (1930) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

From 1928 until his death he served as Principal of the Ontario College of Art.  

Snow, Lake O'Hara (1926) by J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

In 1931, never having been very healthy, he experienced a stroke, from which he recuperated in Barbados. But a second stroke in November 1932 proved fatal.

First Snow, Algoma (1919 / 1920) by A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

A.Y. Jackson (1882–1974)

Alexander Young Jackson was born in Montreal. He studied in Chicago and visited France to study art in 1907, exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1908, visiting a second time in 1912. Back in Montreal and frustrated by his lack of success there, he was on the verge of decamping to the United States when J.E.H. MacDonald reached out to him as part of a concerted effort by Harris, MacDonald, and their supporter Dr. MacCallum to lure him to Toronto. 

Early Spring, Emileville, Quebec (1913) by A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

On relocating, he was among the first artists to take studio space in Harris and MacCallum’s new Studio Building, in 1914, sharing a studio with Tom Thomson. The two became good friends, fishing and painting together in Algonquin Park. 

Jackson was clearly already an advanced artist well before the outbreak of the First World War. He enlisted in 1915, was wounded at the Battle of Sanctuary Wood in June 1916, and spent 1917–19 as an official war artist.

The Red Maple (1914) by A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Meanwhile, he had received the news of Thomson’s tragic death—a serious blow to him as a first-hand witness to the first flare of Thomson’s genius. He organized the first memorial exhibition of his friend’s work, in Montreal, returning to Toronto in time to be part of the newly formed Group of Seven.   

St. Fidele, Que. (c. 1927) by A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Almost simultaneously, in May 1920, Jackson was a founder member of the Montreal-based Beaver Hall Group and became its first president, establishing a crucial link between forward-looking artists in Quebec and Toronto.  

Mt. Rocher Eboulé, Hazelton, B.C. (1926) by A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Rivalled only by Harris, Jackson was always the most determined traveller of the Group, exploring the length and breadth of the country. In 1927, he managed to persuade the government to sponsor a trip on the RCMP supply ship the SS Beothic, to paint the Canadian Arctic. In 1930, he repeated the exercise, this time with Harris.    

Dawn, Pine Island (1923) by A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Throughout Jackson’s long life, he drew incessantly, with a quick, dynamic touch that vividly captures momentary impressions, and painted prolifically until a stroke in 1965 incapacitated him. He spent his last six years living at the McMichael as guest of the founders—not so much an artist-in-residence as a living monument to the Group of Seven, colluding with Robert and Signe McMichael in the Group’s apotheosis. 

Hills, Killarney, Ontario (Nellie Lake) (c. 1933) by A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

He and Casson came up with the plan for the Artists’ Cemetery on the McMichael grounds, where Jackson is now buried. He died in 1974, age ninety-one, a legendary figure in Canadian art. 

First Snow, Algoma (1919 / 1920) by A.Y. Jackson (1882 - 1974)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

FIRST SNOW, ALGOMA, 1919 / 1920

Of all the Group members’ public reputations, Jackson’s may undeservedly have fallen furthest since their heyday. His biggest challenge to contemporary viewers may be his subtlety. Jackson’s paintings seldom have the chromatic punch, size, or hieratic power of Lawren Harris’s paintings or the expressive verve of F.H. Varley’s. Jackson sensitively distinguishes the foreground of First Snow, Algoma with superimposed graphic elements and haunting silhouettes of fire-scorched trees, neither of which appear in the oil sketch. Jackson masterfully mingled tones to create paintings more evocative than dramatic.

Evening Silhouette (c.1926) by Arthur Lismer (1885 - 1969)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Arthur Lismer (1885–1969)

There have always been artists whose significance as educators matches, and in some cases eclipses, their achievements as painters. Arthur Lismer managed both. As a member of the Group of Seven, he has a secure artistic legacy, but his influence as a teacher of art runs very deep indeed.

Like MacDonald and Varley, he was British by birth. Born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, he started young: at just thirteen he was apprenticed to a photoengraving firm, taking evening classes at the Sheffield School of Arts.   

Pine Wrack (1939) by Arthur Lismer (1885 - 1969)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

In 1905, he went to Antwerp, Belgium, to continue his studies at the Royal Academy there.   

Canadian Jungle (1946) by Arthur Lismer (1885 - 1969)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Lismer moved to Canada in 1911, taking a job at Grip Ltd. as a commercial artist alongside Thomson, Johnson, and Carmichael. He was soon part of their joint sketching trips to Algonquin, joined in 1912 by fellow Yorkshireman Fred Varley, both embracing the outdoorsy culture from which the Group of Seven sprang.  

From My Window - Montreal (1940 - 1949) by Arthur Lismer (1885 - 1969)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

In 1916 his teaching career was launched with his appointment as president of the Victoria College of Art (now NSCAD University) in Halifax, where he also worked as a war artist, recording shipping, including the famously eye-catching (but brilliantly eye-deceiving) “dazzle ships” in the harbour. He was also a witness to the tragic devastation of the Halifax Explosion of December 1917.  

Sumach Pattern, Georgian Bay (c. 1933) by Arthur Lismer (1885 - 1969)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Lismer’s sketches of Georgian Bay are among the most evocative works produced by the Group in that district. His style was very advanced and strongly graphic in its use of dramatic outlines and complex composition. Lismer must have travelled nearly as much as Jackson—albeit as an educator, in which capacity he was much in demand—and like Jackson he drew continuously, with particular skill in comic drawing and caricature. In these quick sketches he delivers what is perhaps the most accessible glimpse of what it was like to be at the centre of the Canadian art world in those exciting times.  

Sumach Pattern, Georgian Bay by Arthur Lismer (1885 - 1969)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

He died in 1969, in Montreal, and is buried at the McMichael Artists’ Cemetery.

Bright Land (1938) by Arthur Lismer (1885 - 1969)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

BRIGHT LAND, 1938

This scene is likely the La Cloche area of Ontario about 60 kilometres southwest of Sudbury. The area is particularly associated with Franklin Carmichael, who painted there from 1924 until the middle 1940s, while Lismer knew it from family vacations in the middle 1930s. Bright Land is graphically emphatic, very different from anything Carmichael painted in terms of size, palette, or the impression of the landscape.

Untitled (landscape) (1950) by Arthur Lismer (1885 - 1969)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Drawing was central to Arthur Lismer’s art. In this selection, Lismer’s choice of simple media —chalk, charcoal, and ink—allowed him to respond to a subject directly and swiftly. Different from the graphite drawings by Franklin Carmichael and A.Y. Jackson on view elsewhere that are purposefully documentary and notational, Lismer’s are exploratory. With almost sculptural effect, and pushing the limits of representation, he modelled form with light and dark primarily and line secondarily. The Group’s drawings are as distinctive as each member, and remarkably, their drawings have never been the subject of a comprehensive historical exhibition.

Sunset in the Bush (c. 1918) by Frank Johnston (1888 - 1949)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Frank (Franz) Johnston (1888–1949)

In the twelve years and eight exhibitions of the Group of Seven, attention was certainly grabbed but sales were few. It is an irony that Frank Johnston, who exhibited only once with the Group before going his own way, should have been on the one hand easily the most financially successful of them all but on the other hand principally famous for that brief association—he had the best of both worlds.    

Johnston was born in Toronto. He studied in Philadelphia and in Germany (between 1904 and 1907), working as a commercial artist in New York and, in Toronto, at Grip Ltd. He was therefore friends with the future Group members and joined Harris, Jackson, and MacDonald in the artistic discovery of Algoma from 1918. That fruitful interlude led to a major exhibition of work in 1919, to which Johnston contributed a remarkable sixty works.    

Dark Waters by Frank Johnston (1888 - 1949)McMichael Canadian Art Collection

It was therefore perfectly logical that he should have been included as a founder member of the Group. But that first exhibition in 1920 was not a financial success, and the early efforts of the Group attracted a fair amount of abuse from critics. Johnston, on the other hand, was capable of putting together, later that same year, a one-man show of some two hundred paintings that sold well. In the fall of 1921, his appointment as principal of the Winnipeg School of Art took him away from Toronto, and on his return in 1924 he officially resigned from the Group. He felt, with some justification, that he did better on his own.    

His style was always distinct from that of the other members. Unlike them, he often worked in tempera, and even his very beautiful Algoma works, produced alongside future Group members, were characteristically individual in colour and in their decorative technique. The McMichael has a very strong selection of his later, equally distinctive, works, which demonstrate an interest in light reflected off snow and water, captured in a virtuoso realist technique. These works are northern European in feel—a fact possibly reflected in his decision to change his name from Frank to Franz in 1927.

However far he may have travelled artistically from his six co-founders, he is one of the Group interred in the Artists’ Cemetery at the McMichael.  

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