Spotlight on Two Tom Thomson Masterpieces

Tom Thomson, sketch for The West Wind, Spring 1916, oil on wood, 21.4 x 26.8 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Gift from the J.S. McLean Collection, Toronto, 1969, Donated by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1988

Since they first emerged from Tom Thomson’s studio in 1917, The West Wind and The Jack Pine have worked their way deep into the Canadian national consciousness. We know how they helped inspire the Group of Seven to break free from European traditions and paint Canada the Canadian way. We know how they look on mugs, T-shirts, placemats and umbrellas. But what most of us probably don’t really know is just how they were created: how they went from a sketch worked up in a little paint box as Thomson sat in the cold spring air of Northern Ontario, to the large finished paintings he produced at least three seasons later in his winter studio.

The Masterpiece in Focus exhibition Tom Thomson: The Jack Pine and The West Wind, opening at the National Gallery of Canada on June 27, attempts to pull back the curtain of mythology and familiarity framing Thomson’s last two great paintings to reveal the master at work, inside and out. In all, the exhibition features nine works by Thomson: three finished paintings and six oil sketches.

“We often talk about his struggle and about his desire to make grand Canadian paintings—large concepts that are difficult to get to grips with—but what this exhibition focuses on is how he made these things and what he was thinking, in raw terms, when he was doing them,” explains Stephen Gritt, the National Gallery of Canada’s Director of Conservation and Technical Research, and the organizer and curator of the exhibition. “We’re getting back to Thomson as simply a bloke who was a good painter, thinking like a painter as he was painting.” 

Tom Thomson, The West Wind, Winter, 1916–17, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.9 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Gift of the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1926

Both paintings and their oil sketches will be featured in the exhibition, providing visitors with a rare opportunity to see them all together. The Art Gallery of Ontario has both the sketch for The West Wind and the finished painting, while the National Gallery has the full-sized The Jack Pine in its collection [the oil sketch belongs to the RiverBrink Art Museum in Queenston, Ontario]. All four works were together during a European tour in 2011–2012, and it was then that Gritt and others recognized how valuable it was to have the paintings side by side. “It’s great to have them together, because it allows you to focus on them in a way you can’t when the backdrop is the Group of Seven or the entirety of Thomson’s career,” says Gritt. The other bonus for visitors is that this is the first time both paintings have been together since they underwent extensive cleaning and restoration work, making them as bright and vibrant as when they first left the studio nearly 100 years ago.

The exhibition also includes a sketch that was painted in the spring of 1915, along with the finished painting that was completed in the studio during the winter of 1915–1916. By seeing what the artist was doing the previous year, using the same practice, viewers will be able to get an idea of just how much his painting evolved in one year, and what might have been possible had Thomson lived to paint one, or many more seasons. “If Thomson hadn’t died in July of 1917, he would have probably painted something very different in the winter of 1917–1918 and onwards. That’s one of the points of the exhibition,” Gritt says. “Each one of the pictures is an experiment as Tom is trying to find a style.”

Tom Thomson, Sketch for The Jack Pine, spring 1916, oil on wood panel, 21 x 26.7 cm. Collection of the RiverBrink Art Museum, Queenston, Ontario

Having used the Northern Ontario landscape as inspiration to create The West Wind and The Jack Pine, Thomson’s last works are often considered to be brother and sister, and like siblings, what binds them together is also what helps to define their differences. They both depict Northern Ontario, but in very different ways, employing different tactics.

“You can almost feel the wind in the West Wind sketch, and I think that Tom Thomson has amped that up for the larger painting using his memory. But in the Jack Pine sketch, it’s a rather dull afternoon or early evening—the weather is undecided, quite unimpressive, but the mood it produced seems to have affected Thomson,” says Gritt. “In the finished painting, he removes the weather entirely and replaces it with pure colour; all reference to reality is severed, and it becomes a purely chromatic environment.”

Some believe Thomson painted The West Wind with such violent weather because—as Group of Seven patron James MacCallum, who was there when the sketch was being created, would later reveal—it was so windy on the day in question that a tree literally blew over and landed on Thomson while he was painting. The artist’s memory could not separate the incident from the scene the following winter when he worked up the sketch in his studio. 

Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, Winter 1916–17, oil on canvas, 127.9 x 139.8 cm. NGC. Purchased 1918

Memory may have also been a key factor, says Gritt, in the creation of The Jack Pine’s vibrant fall colours. The sketch Lake in Autumn (1916), also included in the exhibition, was not likely painted out of doors, but rather indoors, and therefore from memory—but a very synthetic form of memory, which produced vibrant colour combinations and contrasts. This colour experiment has a strikingly similar colour palette to The Jack Pine, but was never made into a large painting. Did the fact that Lake in Autumn had been created much more recently than the sketch for The Jack Pine play into the finished painting? Visitors will have to come and see the exhibition to judge for themselves. 

The Masterpiece in Focus exhibition Tom Thomson: The Jack Pine and The West Wind is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until January 4, 2015.

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