Tom Thomson, godfather of the Group of Seven, drowned in an Ontario lake under mysterious circumstances, and ever since, his reputation has been the stuff of legend.
The story of Tom Thomson’s life invariably begins with his death. Both a tragedy and a mystery, it has invited enough speculation to fill several books. On July 8, 1917, Thomson, a thirty-nine-year-old artist from Toronto, goes paddling in Algonquin Park. Later his overturned canoe is found floating in the water. A fruitless search is organized, but a week later, a young girl out fishing with her father snags a body on her line. The father reports the discovery and two local men retrieve the corpse, which turns out to be the missing painter.
Perhaps it was an accident. But Thomson was an expert canoeist; it made no sense that he should fall into the water and drown (even if he was, as rumour has it, standing up to take a piss). Perhaps he killed himself. There were theories of a disappointment in love. Perhaps it was murder. There was that gash on his forehead and fishing line tangled around his leg. Though they have been asked again and again, the questions have never been resolved.
With Thomson’s death, his reputation took flight, and it is the reputation—legend is a better word—that is the subject of Sherrill Grace’s latest book, Inventing Tom Thomson (McGill-Queen’s University Press). “I can think of no other modern Canadian, in any field of endeavour, who has been as obsessively invented and reinvented as Tom Thomson,” Grace writes. She states emphatically that her book is not a biography. It is more a meta-biography, a book about other books (and paintings, photographs, films, exhibitions and plays), a book about “what others have done with Thomson’s biography.”
“The Canadian way of death is death by accident,” Margaret Atwood wrote in Survival. If this is so, if a country can be said to have “a way of death,” then Tom Thomson’s is our exemplar. But so is his life. For one thing, he pioneered a new role for the artist. Arthur Lismer, a fellow painter, wrote of him: “He could drop a line in places, and catch a fish where other experienced fishermen had failed. He identified a bird song, and noted changes in the weather. He could find his way over open water to a portage or a camp on a night as black as ink.” This was a novel, distinctly Canadian, way of describing an artist, the painter as coureur de bois, an adventurer who goes out into the woods and tracks down a painting like a hunter going after a bear.
In reality, Thomson came to the wilderness quite late in his life. He grew up on a farm and passed his early adulthood in urban settings (Seattle and Toronto). When, at age thirty-four, he made his first trip to Algonquin Park in 1912, he had to borrow a packsack. Something clicked, however, and thereafter Thomson spent every summer in the park, retreating to Toronto only for the winter months. His paintings done during this period, especially The West Wind and The Jack Pine, remain iconic images of the Canadian landscape. “It grows in the national ethos as our one and only tree in a country of trees,” the artist Harold Town wrote about the central image in the former; the latter is the only modern painting reproduced in the federal government’s recently published guide for new immigrants.
Thomson’s familiarity with the outdoors impressed his artist friends, who, after his death, went on to form the Group of Seven. They saw him as an untutored genius whose inspiration sprang directly from the raw Canadian landscape, unmediated by the dead hand of tradition. This was the image Group members created for themselves as well, backwoods painters who were capturing the true Canada for the first time, artistic pathfinders following in the footsteps of the explorers and the fur traders.
The country was ready for such a role model in the years before and during the Great War. Canadians were still wondering how to find their place in the world. Many nations seek their identity in history, but as a young country, Canada did not have much. So Canadians looked to geography and were happy to find meaning in the wild, unsettled landscape of the Shield country (“the North” as people thought of it then, even if Algonquin Park lies within a half day’s drive of Toronto).
Many Canadians also shared an anxiety about the forces of industrialism that were reshaping their society, not always for the better. In response they sought solace in the regenerative power of nature and particularly in the image of Canada as a great white North, a blank slate on which a different country could be written. Thomson’s life and art seemed to be a throwback to a simpler, more authentic time and a connection to a simpler, more authentic place. “If there is one quality or image that all inventions of Tom Thomson share and exploit, it is the association of the man and his art with some notion of the North, and, thereby, with Canada itself,” Grace writes. “In this portrait of Tom Thomson, Canada pictures itself.”
Grace, who is a professor of literature at the University of British Columbia, argues that Thomson also came to represent a prototype for the ideal of Canadian masculinity. Successive biographers and hagiographers re-created him as “a simple man, spiritually in touch with nature, priest-like in his pure celebration of the wilderness, handsome but untouchable and solitary, good- natured but reserved.” Other than Pierre Trudeau, and perhaps Grey Owl, it is hard to think of any public figure who has embodied this idea of the Canadian male better than Thomson.
Among all the myths and inventions, Grace concludes that Thomson was a volatile loner, probably a man with bipolar disorder who self-medicated with booze, someone whom she may not have liked if they had met. But what makes Thomson so attractive to her as a subject, if not a personality, is the way he has become the embodiment of an imagined Canada (northern, wild, empty, unspoiled) and an imagined Canadian (solitary woodsman, sensitive nature lover, New World pioneer). In the end Grace’s book is about the country, not the artist at all; in her hands the invention of Tom Thomson becomes the invention of a version of Canada.