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who was tom thomson?


Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was born in Claremont Ontario, and his family to moved to Lieth in the Owen Sound area where he grew up. He spent a lot of time, outdoors fishing and exploring the natural surroundings and had a keen interest in nature learning about the native plants and animals. He spent his young adulthood learning and training in business and graphic design, some of which was spent in Seattle Washington where his brother operated a school of Business. He returned to Toronto and got work in a commercial design house and worked under J.E.H. MacDonald. His love of the outdoors never left him, and after being encouraged by his boss and coworkers to take up painting, he ventured into Algonquin Park in 1912 with his paints and wooden panels. This would prove to be the turning point in his artist expression and in the history of Canadian art.

The Mystery of Tom Thomson's Art

In 1912 after a summer trip to Algonquin Park, Tom Thomson emerged from the wilderness to become one of the most celebrated artists in the history of Canada. His influence on his peers would forever change the Canadian art world. His mysterious death in 1917 would cement his myth as the great Canadian outdoorsman and artist whose work helped shape the destiny of Canadian art culture.

Tom Thomson was a graphic designer and illustrator working in Toronto. His coworkers and art director at his office were to become great friends (and later would become The Group of Seven). They inspired and encouraged him to begin painting En Plein Air. "Sketching Outdoors" was the practice of making quick paintings in oil to capture the essence or the feeling of the given day. In the winter of 1912, upon a visit to Huntsville to see his friend Dr. John McRuer, a suggestion was made that Tom may enjoy painting the wilderness in Algonquin Park that coming summer. Thus at the age of 35, Thomson made his way to Algonquin, bought some birch panels to paint on, and promptly started turning out paintings.

With little experience or formal art training, Tom began experimenting on his little 8 inch by 10 inch panels. His colour choices were bold, using bright colour combinations and bold lines with brush strokes clearly site. The brush strokes themselves were often large and went across the whole painting in a lyrical, flowing description, of sky, lake, water and trees. A subject matter not often depicted by Canadian artists at the time. His paintings were bold and showed the rugged nature of the wilderness. Packing a canoe with a tent and supplies, and fishing gear, Tom  would often travel through Algonquin Park on extended outings, canoeing and portaging to remote locations and painting the landscape. As the summer progressed so did the quality and experimentation in his works.

Upon his return to Toronto, in the fall of 1912, his coworkers and friends were fascinated with the paintings he had created. This group of friends had been pushing the boundaries of accepted art practises in Canada, and were searching for a modern method of art to express the Canadian ideal - a way to create a unique style of art fit to represent what the young country of Canada stood for. They found what they were searching for in Tom's new paintings.

Just how Tom was able to use colour to express perfectly, the feeling and essence of the Canadian north is inspirational on its own. How he chanced upon this approach to painting is incredible. The fury with which he painted his sketches can be seen in his expressive brush strokes that seem to dance across his panels. The power of his visionary paintings is overwhelming. These works so inspired his friends that many of them were to adapt his style of painting in their own works. Every one of his artist friends were to join him in the coming years for extended painting trips into Algonquin Park. The subject matter of the lakes, rocks, trees and sky were to become the focal point of what Canada meant to these artists, the identity of an art that was truly Canadian. In the next five years, Tom was to return to Algonquin Park from the spring to the fall, painting and living in the woods. On a number of occasions, he was to get work as a fire ranger, guide and other odd jobs. However, he found that these activities limited his time for painting, which was what he was really there to do. His main base was at Mowatt Lodge on Canoe Lake, where he established himself as a member of the community. Upon returning from his canoe trips he would take up residence in his room at the lodge, and let his oil paintings dry out in his friends cottages and cabins.

At the end of every fall Tom would return to his studio in Toronto. Over the course of the winter Tom would make larger versions of some of his favourite sketches. These larger versions have become some of the most famous paintings in Canada, and that explains why there are sometimes two versions of his paintings, such as "The West Wind" and "The Jack Pine" among others.

In 1917 when he returned to Algonquin Park, Tom had a goal to paint one painting every day, to follow the seasons and changes over the course of the year. That goal was cut short on July 8th of that summer, with his untimely death.

From 1912 to 1917, a mere 5 years, Tom Thomson painted hundreds of panels and numerous large canvases. His legacy to the art world is tremendous, his influence on his friends and subsequently the Canadian art world is monstrous. Making him one of the titans of Canadian art history. It is a mystery as to what caused him, at the age of 35, to transform himself, from a simple graphic artist, into one of the most prolific artists of his time. As was put into words by his friend J.E.H. MacDonald maybe it was that "nature revealed herself to him.

The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson

Tom Thomson the great Canadian artist and outdoors man was supposedly last seen heading out to go fishing at 6:00 in the morning on July 8th 1917. Witnesses from the tiny community of Mowatt in Algonquin Park, claimed they saw him leave the dock at Mowatt Lodge in his canoe. He was never seen alive again. His overturned canoe was found later that day in the middle of Canoe Lake, with his paddles strapped into the
canoe as if ready for a portage.

When Tom did not show up later that day, his friends became concerned. Fearing that he may have injured himself on a portage trail, his friends in the small community, one of which was Algonquin Park ranger Mark Robinson, began a search party on land. There was no thought given to a possible water accident as Tom Thomson was an expert canoeist and swimmer. The search was fruitless and Tom was not found until 8 days later when his lifeless body surfaced on Canoe Lake. His friends were devastated to say the least. His body had a telltale sign of trauma, as there was a serious wound on his forehead and blood in his ear. It was suggested that he fell in his canoe and hit his head on the gunnel knocking him out as he fell into the water and drowned.

This did not sit well with his friends, as his canoe skills surpassed this simple explanation. Foul play was suspected. There were a number of reasons for this assumption by his friends. Had he overturned his canoe, his working paddle and other pieces of his camping and fishing gear would have also been found along with his empty canoe, floating on the lake nearby. There was fishing line tied around one of his ankles, and the wound to his temple seemed far more forceful than a fall in a canoe could produce. Add to this the fact that, Tom had a cantankerous relationship with some of the residents of Mowatt, and foul play becomes a logical conclusion.

There is no shortage of suspects. There was a resident of Mowatt, named Martin Bletcher, whom had open aggression towards Tom, and by all accounts the feeling was mutual. There was Bletchers son, Martin Bletcher junior whom may have been a rival for Toms' love interest (Winnifred Trainor). There is the owner of Mowatt Lodge, Shannon Fraser whom owed Tom a large sum of money, Tom was trying to collect. There was also the logging company that viewed Tom as troublesome, and there was also a rumour that Tom was sneaking out of an engagement to Winnifred Trainor, which would have had her father furious.

A coroner was summoned to Algonquin Park to do an autopsy and investigate the cause of death, however, it took him many days to arrive. In the mean time Tom's body had been tied under a shady dock, as this was the coolest place to store his lifeless body. After a few days the coroner had not yet arrived, and his friends, unable to bear the indignity of Toms' body rotting away in the heat of July, decided to bury him in a grave behind the community of Mowatt.

When the coroner finally arrived, an inquest was held and the residents of Mowatt were questioned about Tom's disappearance and death. No new evidence was discovered, and by all accounts the inquest was suspect to faulty procedures and uncomfortable, if not uncooperative witnesses, and cross testimonies such as Park Ranger Mark Robinsons' account of seeing Tom and Shannon Fraser on the dock of Mowatt Lodge at 12:00 noon on the same day witnesses said they saw him leave at 6:00 in the morning. The witnesses were supposedly Martin Bletcher junior and his sister, leaving them suspect to collusion for the murder itself.

The inquest was inconclusive. The death was seen as an embarrassment to the Park and the Superintendent of Algonquin Park wanted the case dealt with and closed as soon as possible. An autopsy ensued, Tom's body was allegedly exhumed by the coroner, at night, autopsied, and then sealed in a metal casket by morning ready for
transportation to his family home in Owen Sound. The final report was that the death was caused by drowning. It has been said that the coroner was drunk at the time, and could not have possibly dug the body up, performed the autopsy and interned Tom into the metal casket in the amount of time he reportedly took to do it, leading some to speculate that the coroner simply put 180 pounds of earth and rocks in the casket and sealed it.

Adding to the mystery, in 1952 some eager investigators decided to dig up the grave to see if Tom's body was still there. They found human remains in the grave. The skull they exhumed had a hole on the left side, the same place Tom had been injured. They sleuths tried to have this verified as Tom's remains, but were basically told to return the skeleton to the grave and mind their own business. A number of explanations were given for the fact that a second skeleton had been placed in Toms' grave, but none of them seem remotely plausible.

100 years later the truth of Tom Thomson's death, and final resting place remains a mystery and will likely never be solved. The circumstances surrounding the events of July 1917 served to heighten the myth of Tom Thomson as an incredible artist, and catapult him to legendary status among his peers in the Group of Seven, and the Canadian art world.

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