In 1920, a group of painters known as the Algonquin School formally, and self-named as “The Group of Seven”, came together with the desire to develop a distinct Canadian style of art, one inspired by the natural environment – the landscape. Today, they are considered some of the most important Canadian artists of the early twentieth century.
Consisting of seven core members – Lauren Harris, Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Frank Carmichael, and J. E. H. MacDonald – the Group of Seven took much of their inspiration from post-impressionism and rebelled against simply reproducing nature. They felt that to truly grasp the feel of the Canadian landscape, they had to be in it, live it and capture it, fully appreciating the role it plays in shaping Canadian consciousness from coast to coast.
On the east coast, we identify with the ocean; in the west, large expanses of flat wheat fields are a comfort, and in the north, an icy tundra is home. Locals who live in them equate these features to a sense of belonging; they are the space that connects people to place. This feeling is what the Group of Seven embodied and brought to Canadian painting – they sought to capture the inextricable link to the environment that is shaped by time and deeply laden with human and non-human history.
Two of the groups’ members, F.H. Varley and Arthur Lismer spent a great deal of time painting on Cape Breton Island, and some of this work is in the CBU Art Gallery Permanent Collection. In Cape Breton Killicks, by Arthur Lismer, the landscape is not ’untouched’ but features a small fishing village (possibly Margaree) and the tools of the trade that were constructed from nature. The buildings, the boat deck, heavy rope and a killick – which is a small anchor made mostly of pieces of wood weighted by a heavy stone – are all from the natural world. In this painting, the style of impasto (blobs of paint) are heavily applied to the surface in rough bumpy patches that reflect the actual texture of those objects. The wood is rough in areas, but smooth where the sea eroded and weathered it from use; the nets are applied in a few layers of paint, mimicking the many times they have been torn and repaired; and the sky is treated with smoother brushstrokes so we know it was a good day for fishing.
One of the more striking features of work by the Group of Seven is their exaggerated use of colour. In the painting titled Great Big Bras D’or by F. H. Varley, he captures the beauty of the Bras D’or lakes at the moment in the autumn where the colours across the landscape are at their most brilliant. Strokes of turquoise and lime green are dotted around large patches of burnt orange and bright red, all meant to showcase the experience of that landscape instead of merely documenting it for display. Anyone who has stood looking over the Bras D’or at this time of year knows that feeling; the colours seem more intense when as you crunch through leaves and breath crisp Fall air!
The work of the Group was complemented by a few other notable Canadian artists with whom they worked frequently – Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, A.J. Casson, L.L. Fitzgerald and Edwin Holgate. The legacy of the Algonquin school is profoundly important in the development of an identity for Canadian Art. It was revolutionary, breaking from the traditional pastoral landscapes of Europe. The Group and affiliates did not only record familiar spaces – they tried to capture the experience of the places with which Canadians identify.
As quickly as their work was criticized and then celebrated, came to be seen as somewhat conservative and was replaced around 1933 with more edgy abstraction in the next generation of Canadian painters. Their contribution was that of change-makers in Canadian Art and they successfully carved out a space for the future development of a Canadian identity.
More information on Group of Seven work from Cape Breton Island and Canada is available at the Cape Breton University Art Gallery in their permanent collection. Contact the Gallery at (902) 563-1342.
Jennifer (LeBlanc) MacPherson is a Seasonal Lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences.
This blog originally appeared in the Cape Breton Post’s, Community Post.