Tom Thomson’s Art and The Canadian Wilderness

Winter Thaw in the Woods by Tom Thomson
Tom Thomson's sketch 'Winter Thaw in the Woods'

Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are pretty much household names in Canada: Certainly, when visiting Ontario over the past few years, this group of artists – the centre of gravity of which was in Toronto – seems to often crop up in conversation. Much of their art is associated with the type of terrain where Frontier Bushcraft runs canoe expeditions so I was particularly excited to visit this exhibition while it was running.

Tom Thomson died before the Group of Seven was formally formed but his work had great influence on them. He was an artist who gained much inspiration from the Canadian wilderness. Even if you have never seen any of his paintings, names such as ‘The Jack Pine’, ‘The West Wind’, and ‘The Northern River’ are enough to conjure mental images of wild terrain.

Unlike some landscape artists who seldom or never visited the terrain they depicted in their paintings, Tom Thomson immersed himself in the wild. This is readily apparent when viewing his sketches and paintings. His work, particularly his sketches, deftly captures the moods and characteristics of mother nature with which many of us who enjoy outdoor life will be familiar. Depictions of choppy conditions on a lake, clouds scudding across a sky, an approaching snow storm and the particular lighting and colours of the woods in spring all resonated with me.

The West Wind by Tom Thomson
Tom Thomson's 'The West Wind'

Tom Thomson moved to Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in 1914, and for the next few years he was prolific, producing many sketches and paintings of the area, including some of his most famous works. He also worked occasionally as a park ranger and guide. On the morning of July 8th, 1917 Thomson set out on the lake in a canoe and disappeared. His body was found in Canoe Lake 8 days later. He appeared to have drowned.

Even though Thomson was largely self-taught, came to serious painting only in his thirties and his period of output was relatively short, his impact was long lasting and profound. The art of the Group of Seven, a school of Canadian landscape painting, was directly influenced by Thomson. The Group of Seven existed as a formal group from 1920-33 and, like Thomson, took their inspiration and subject matter from the Canadian wilderness. They travelled extensively, through areas such as Algoma and staying in areas such as Georgian Bay to paint for periods of time. This is an area of the Canadian Shield where I have visited, including the French River (which flows into Georgian Bay), and so it was interesting to see how they had captured the spirit of these places. Yet more of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven’s work reminded me of wilderness I have visited in Scandinavia, particularly in some of their winter paintings.

It is rare to see such a collection of the works of these artists in the UK and I’m glad I made the visit. More than any other art exhibition I’ve seen, the work on display has at its heart a representation of raw, unadulterated natural environments. I found I identified strongly with the subject matter, all the more so for having visited some of the magnificent terrain they chose to depict.

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Paul Kirtley is Founder and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog. He is the author of Wilderness Axe Skills and Campcraft, as well as having contributed to several other books. Paul has been involved in teaching bushcraft since 2003. He is also a Canoe Leader, British Canoeing Level 3 Canoe Coach and UK Summer Mountain Leader.

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6 Responses

  1. Mark H
    | Reply

    Hi Paul,

    I enjoy this sort of ‘realist – impressionist’ wilderness art. Bill Mason has always really managed to ‘spark’ my imagination with his very similar perspective. It strikes me that these guys really lived in the world they painted .And so, understood the true meaning of wilderness and the absolute ‘detail’ that ‘transmitted’ the real nature of the Canadian Wilderness is always evident in all their work.
    I have an Adam Attew, “Forest Of Possibilty” print – it really has the ability to remind me of all that the Swedish Taiga has to offer.
    These guys all possess such a gift well beyond my grasp !!
    Go well

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Mark

      When looking at Tom Thomson’s art, I sense he had real affinity with the landscape he was representing in his work, that he knew how to look into the landscape rather than at it. He seemed to want to immerse himself in the wild and transmit this sense via his paintings.

      As you say, this sense of immersion in the wild comes through beautifully in the work of Bill Mason.

      And I agree – anyone who can trasmit these feelings into a gallery or onto a screen, has a rare skill.

      All the best,


  2. Dave Dean
    | Reply

    Hi Paul,

    I love the sense of light playing through the trees in that top photo. It really conjures up the sense of being in similar places myself – which to my mind is the quintessential purpose of any landscape painting!

    It reminds me of my favourite artist – Kurt Jackson. He lives and paints in my homeland of Cornwall, and captures the sense of being on the Cornish Moors or on the Cornish coast in a way that directly elicits my sense of ‘being there’. Have a look at some of his work here:

    He’s particularly good at rendering the play of light through trees (close to all bushcrafters’ hearts!). My favourite exhibition of his was one that focused on ‘Three Woods’ a few years ago. His most recent exhibition also focused on the importance of trees in a topical counter-point to all the talk recently of our forests being sold off.

  3. Dave Dean
    | Reply

    Direct link to the ‘Three Woods’ exhibition. I couldn’t resist 🙂

    He also renders gorse flowers like no other…

  4. Preston
    | Reply

    So glad you liked the exhibition. I really admire the Group of Seven’s work, as do many other Canadians, because it really expresses the beauty of our landscape and captures what it’s like to be out there standing in front of it. The paintings serve as a reminder of our land’s beauty when we can’t be there, and inspires us to take it in for ourselves.

    Great write up, Paul, and thanks for your comments on

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      I completely agree Preston. I wish more people over here – particularly outdoors folks – were aware of the work of these artists. Many of the paintings really do capture the character and express the essence of being in that landscape.

      Warm regards,


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