ICON: 004 - The Group of 7

The Group of 7

Canadian Icon: 004

History of The Group of 7

At the turn of the last century, a group of Canadian artists decided to explore the character of Canada's landscape through their art. Their mission was to express Canada's rugged wilderness wihin a distinctively "Canadian" style - a style that would break from European tradition. They called themselves the Group of Seven.

Today the Group of Seven and their contemporaries are among Canada's most famous artists. To many, their art symbolizes the distinct Canadian identity. But despite the importance of their movement, private collectors at the time were often criticized for collecting art so clearly outside the European tradition. The sentiment was reflected in gallery statistics as well. In 1924, just 2% of the paintings sold in Canada were by Canadian artists. No one imagined that these paintings, which sold for around $250 at the time, would come to fetch millions just a few decades later.

Many of the artists who formed the Group of Seven were employed at commercial design firms in their early careers. Tom Thomson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, and Franklin Carmichael first met and discovered their common artistic interests while working at Grip Ltd. in Toronto. The men began to take weekend sketching trips together and often gathered at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto. It was there that they earnestly discussed possible new directions for Canadian art.

In 1913, Lawren Harris convinced A.Y. Jackson to move to Toronto from Montreal. In that same year, Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald visited the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York to view an exhibition of Scandinavian paintings. This show further fuelled the artists' desire to create a Canadian style. In 1920, Harris, MacDonald, Lismer, Varley, Johnston, Carmichael and Jackson decided, for the first time, to exhibit together as the Group of Seven.

Despite the name, membership in the Group of Seven eventually grew to include at least ten artists and contemporaries. Tom Thomson, for instance, was a name synonymous with the Group but his mysterious death in Algonquin Park in 1917 precluded him from being an official member. And it wasn't until six years after the Group's initial show that Emily Carr, the female artist so famously associated with the Group, first met Lawren Harris, who famously declared Carr to be "One of us." Carr, who felt underappreciated as an artist at the time, greatly appreciated the Group's acceptance. It reinvigorated her career and put into motion one of Canada's greatest artistic visions.

As we see, from its birth in 1920 to the early 1930s, the Group of Seven was immensely influential on both artists and the public at large. Though the final exhibition was held in 1931, their legacy resonates to this day, increasing our awareness of the breadth and variety of the Canadian landscape, and heightening our understanding of Canada's culture.

East meets West

In the early part of the century, Victoria was a small town on Canada's west coast - far removed from the intellectual and artistic centres in the bigger Canadian cities. It was an unlikely place to spawn an artist, let alone a female contemporary of the Group of Seven. But Canada's Pacific mythos was so carefully distilled in Emily Carr's imagination that, upon seeing her work, the Group immediately understood that she could help bolster a true Canadian art movement.

This famous meeting of Carr and the members of the Group of Seven occurred in 1927 when Carr exhibited her work in the exhibition West Coast Art: Native and Modern. Travelling east on her way to Ottawa for the exhibition, Carr met Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald and, most importantly, Lawren S. Harris - the man who re-energized Carr's pursuit of an artistic vision unlike any other.

In a time when critics and the public expected to see misty representations of the Dutch countryside as they appeared on the easels of the European academies, this meeting of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr – of east meeting west – was a key moment in Canadian history.

The Female Contemporary

Widely regarded as the single most important artist to emerge from Western Canada, Carr's vision and talent spawned a body of paintings freely expressive of the large rhythms of Western forests, driftwood-tossed beaches and expansive skies.

Orphaned in her early teens, Carr showed an early interest in Aboriginal peoples, in their traditional culture and in their houses, totem poles and masks. Carr's forays into this source material established one of the two great themes of her painting career: the visual preservation of Aboriginal culture and her distinctive expression of Canada's west coast landscape. At times the two themes became so intertwined in her vision as to constitute a theme of their own.

Critical recognition and exposure in national exhibitions began to come Emily's way after 1928. There were occasional sales, but it wasn't until after Carr's death that her work was appreciated, particularly at auction. In 2009, Carr's 'Wind in Tree Tops' sold for over two million dollars.

"There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness." --Emily Carr

Canada's First Art Gallery

"In the 1948, my father and grandfather purchased Canada's oldest fine art gallery. I was fortunate, then, to grow up surrounded by art and artists, particularly Canadian works and certainly a great deal of Group of Seven paintings filled my world from as early as I can remember.

By the mid 1950s the gallery was showing only Canadian art. We stuck to that model, presenting both historical and contemporary Canadian work. We were one of the first galleries to present the Group of Seven more than seventy years ago and we are fortunate to have handled many works by all members of the Group over the past six decades.

We continue to have relationships with the estates of Casson and Varley, two of the Group's finest painters, and it is a joy to continue sharing their expression with Canada and the world after so many years."

— Paul Wildridge, art historian, philanthropist, owner of Roberts Gallery - the oldest art gallery in Canada.