In 1935, Blodwen Davies penned and released her study Tom Thomson: the story of a man who looked for beauty and for truth in the wilderness. Fascinated by Canada’s growing artistic community, Davies moved to Toronto in 1921 to meet with the Group of Seven, artists then known for their post-impressionist construction of the Canadian landscape. Much like the artists whom she sought out, Davies’ book reflected an interest in the various regions and cities that eventually became subjects painted by the Group of Seven. Moreover, her own colonial imaginations of the space around her manufactured an image of Canada as a nation carved from an empty wilderness; a nature that white settlers had the capacity to shape in the process of self-fashioning an identity. This was ultimately the goal of the Group of Seven and the settler art institutions that supported them. The need to locate an identity, and in particular a national identity, in the wilderness is captured in works such as Tom Thomson’s 1915 painting, The Poacher.
Settler institutions like the National Gallery used the Group of Seven to claim land visually, and in turn the Group benefited financially from their reproduction of a distinct white settler-Canadian Art. This new form was one that could be developed through direct contact with nature, as Thomson, and later the Group of Seven, painted images of empty landscapes, industry in nature, and on rare occasions, so-called settler “pioneers.” Though the Group were not the first settler Canadian artists to gain fame in the art world, they are seen as the first distinctly national artists crafting a uniquely Canadian style. Prior to the formation of the Group, European style and influences dominated Canadian art. But the Group of Seven became a tool to be used by settler institutions. In crafting a unique Canadian identity through pieces of visual culture that captured and claimed the country’s landscape, settler institutions constructed and propagated myth about the process of colonisation.
Thomson’s The Poacher, utilizing bold colour and large sweeping brush strokes to convey movement, captures this vision of an “untouched” northern wilderness. Presenting the masculine figure of a pioneer, Thomson portrays an idealistic representation of white settler Canada as being formed in and by the white agricultural labouring of – and taming of – the frontier. Geography played a key role in conceptualizing a unique “Canada” for Thomson, a man whose paintings of the Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park became indicative of a larger white settler Canadian national imagination. Though he sought out the beauty in the world around him, the truth Thomson wanted to convey was one produced only by the elimination and erasure of Indigenous peoples and culture. The process of locating a national identity in a wilderness was only made possible by ignoring the peoples who lived, and continue to live, in these violently colonized spaces. What made the Group of Seven’s “Canadian” art unique, was their need to depict a terra nullius where white settler pioneers could construct an imagined community built upon an uninhabited frontier.
Written by Richard Yeomans, Ph.D Student at the University of New Brunswick.