The seven founding artists, Lawren Harris, J.E.H MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, F.H. Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael and A.Y Jackson, had for several years shared a like vision concerning art in Canada. They are all imbued with the idea “that an art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people” as stated in their group manifesto.
In the years leading up to the formation of the group, Tom Thomson, MacDonald, Varley, Johnston and Carmichael worked in the same commercial design firm, Grip Ltd. in Toronto. Much time was spent together both during and after work, discussing bold new directions for Canadian Art.
In 1913, they invited A.Y Jackson, an artist whose work they admired, to move from Montreal and join them in Toronto. In the same year, art patron Dr. James MacCallum in partnership with Lawren Harris built the studio building for Canadian art in Rosedale, Toronto. It provided artists with studio facilities at a modest cost.
By 1914, Thomson had left full-time employment at Grip Ltd to paint in Algonquin Park and work as a guide. Thomson encouraged Lismer, Jackson and Varley to make several sketching trips to Algonquin Park, where they discovered the distinct light of the Canadian atmosphere. In preparation for these trips, the artists equipped themselves with specially constructed sketching boxes fitted with standard size wooden panels. The use of these boxes enabled the artists to record their impressions of the Canadian landscape directly from nature. Sketches were finished works themselves, though many were used as preparatory studies for larger canvases completed in the studio during the winter months.
During the First World War, A.Y. Jackson served overseas and was also appointed as an official war artist. Varley and Johnston also were commissioned as official war artists, while Lismer travelled to Halifax to record events there for the Canadian War records. Lawren Harris served with the Forces stationed in Canada.
Under mysterious circumstances, Tom Thomson drowned in Canoe Lake in 1917. His friends were shocked by his tragic and untimely death. Jackson wrote of his loss, “Without Tom the North Country seems a desolation of bush and rock; he was the guide, the interpreter.”
Back in Toronto after the war, the artists soon got in touch with each other again and embarked on several sketching trips to the vast Algoma region north of Superior. It was here that Harris, MacDonald and Jackson in particular found inspiration for some of their greatest paintings. The artists moved around by canoe, portaging their tents and art supplies. Harris had the idea to rent a boxcar from Algoma Central Railway and have it shunted onto sidings in choice sketching locations.
The railway car served as a rolling home and studio and it provided the base from which to roam in search of subjects.
Throughout the 1920’s the group diverged stylistically, with each member developing an individual approach. At the same time their search for new painting sites took them farther afield as did, in some cases, their search for paid employment. MacDonald and Harris separately visited the Rocky Mountains first in 1924, and both returned annually throughout the decade. Jackson often returned to his native Quebec but also visited British Columbia , the Great Slave Lake region, and in 1927 and 1930, the arctic in a supply boat. Restricted by his teaching duties, Lismer travelled less frequently but did go to Quebec and the Maritimes. Varley took a teaching position in Vancouver in 1926, remaining there for ten years. Johnston lived in Winnipeg from 1921 to 1924. Only Carmichael, tied by family and professional responsibilities, remained close to home; his painting trips took him to the territory north or Lake Huron and Lake Superior. These varying landscapes helped to shape the artists’ styles – the stark, monumental terrain of Lake Superior’s north shore and the mountains of the west captivated Harris, for example, while the rolling hills and rustic villages of Quebec unfailingly attracted Jackson.
In spite of the popular belief that the Group of Seven was at first reviled by critics and public alike, there was, in fact, both criticism and praise, and support came from many sources.
The Group of Seven’s determination and belief in Canadian culture was immensely influential in the years following the first group show in 1920, and that influence prevails to this day. They have become the most famous artists in Canadian history, symbolizing for many a concept of a distinctly Canadian Identity. They recognized that their vision was shared by others. There was a new attitude developing toward Canada, for which their activities served as catalyst. They believed it was necessary to enlarge the group, which ultimately was absorbed into a larger entity known as the Canadian Group of Painters, whose first exhibition was held in 1933. This outspoken nationalism and belief in the continuing growth of art mark the Group of Seven as truly great contributors to the history of Canadian culture.