Island, Georgian Bay (late 1920)
I’m currently in Ontario, Canada, visiting family and immersing myself in Canada’s big wild — which is why I turn once again to a paper written not so long ago on Canadian landscape painting. More Americans need to know about their neighbors to the north. Yes, there are artists in Canada.
It comes as no surprise that landscape painting should be the definitive artistic genre for Canada, a country so in love with and so self-consciously characterized by its wilderness that its citizens voted to make a leaf the focus of its national flag. Just as tourist bureaus have used Canada’s natural wonders and resources to market the country as a unique vacation destination (and in the nineteenth-century a unique place to settle), so have artists employed the landscape to promote a distinctly Canadian artistic identity.
The uniquely Canadian style of landscape painting took root in May 1920 with the first exhibition of the Group of Seven at the Art Gallery of Toronto. The founding members of the Seven, including Carmichael, felt the highly representational and exacting approach favored by the English school was inadequate when it came to portraying the ruggedness, elusive spirituality, and distinctiveness of their country’s territory. Motivated by a nationalistic urgency to find a more Canadian way of painting the Canadian landscape, the Group developed an expressive and painterly style. The Group of Seven’s depictions of the Northern Ontario landscape are beautiful, rhythmic, and mobile with a light that radiates from within. Whether or not their style is wholly unique to Canada, an organic development that emerged from extended submersions in Ontario’s forests, is debatable. Regardless of the verdict, the Group of Seven and their contemporaries were singled out in their lifetime as breaking with the standing artistic traditions of their country and of finding a mode of expression as distinctive as their environment. They were viewed as an avant-garde group that broke with mainstream tastes and as such initially occupied a marginal place in the market. However, their style inspired the younger artists in the region and soon their work earned international recognition as “the only living Canadian art.” By the 1930s they were unequivocally Canada’s “National School.” Today, their legacy has eclipsed all that came before. The Seven stand as Canada’s artistic ambassadors.