Tom Thomson's Algonquin Evening
In spite of his all too brief career (approximately five years), Tom Thomson’s paintings left an indelible mark on Canadian art of the first half of the twentieth century. The remarkable history of his life and early death and the myths that developed around him inspired a whole generation of Canadian artists. But his true legacy lies in his paintings. If his work was principally confined to subjects he found in Algonquin Park, he explored and interpreted the changing light and colours of its woods, rivers, dams and lakes in a constantly evolving pictorial language. From the tightly painted sketches of 1912 to his mature works dating from the spring of 1917, Thomson was always an accomplished colourist. From 1914 he applied paint in vigorous brushstrokes, creating a highly textured surface evocative of the crudity of his subjects, a largely uninhabited landscape, often modified by logging. His palette became brighter, on occasion non-naturalistic, and more, high-keyed. Bold and unexpected juxtapositions reveal his enormous sensitivity to the effects of nature and his ability to transform them into images evocative of a particular place and time. Through his sketches one can follow the seasons from the late winter snow to the clear light of early spring, through the dramatic sky effects of summer to the brilliant colours of autumn and the light of oncoming winter.
Tom Thomson 1877-1917
Algonquin Evening, Fall 1915
Oil on wood
8 1/2 x 10 1/2 in (21.6 x 26.7 cm)
In the winter of 1914-1915 Thomson painted Northern River (National Gallery of Canada). The motif of a vertical screen of trees crossed by a fallen trunk was borrowed from A.Y. Jackson’s A Frozen Lake of 1914 (National Gallery of Canada). Worked up from a gouache study (Art Gallery of Ontario), Northern River has a graphic linearity, colour is muted and the foreground screen flattens the composition. Thomson reworked this arrangement of vertical trees crossed by a diagonal in a variety of sketches, including Blue Lake: sketch for “In the Northland” and Maple Woods, Bare Trunks (both in the National Gallery of Canada), Phantom Tent (McMichael Canadian Art Collection) and Algonquin Park (Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound), all dating from the fall of 1915. In Algonquin Evening the motif is painted with a similarly bold experimentation in colour and brushwork. Thomson has abandoned the careful design of Northern River and arranges colour and form on the panel independent of the subject. In Algonquin Evening the dead, foreground trees are painted in a palette of deep mauves, intense blues, blacks and reds against a sky of brilliant yellows that reflect on the tops of the fallen trunks. The background foliage is treated as simplified silhouettes and forms are broadly, almost crudely brushed for expressive effect.
With few tourists in Algonquin Park due to the war, Thomson did less guiding and more painting during the 1915 season. On 8 September he wrote from South River, in a somewhat ironic tone, to his patron, Dr. James MacCallum, “Travelled over a great deal of country this summer, done very few sketches, a hundredso far.” The concentration on painting liberated Thomson and resulted in the first manifestations of his independent talent as seen in Algonquin Evening.
This sketch was acquired from the artist by Mrs. B.P. Watson in the spring of 1917, before Thomson returned to the Park. In 1947 Mrs. Watson sold the sketch to the Fine Art Gallery at Eaton’s College Street, then an active venue for Canadian art under the direction of Richard Van Valkenburg, together with Thomson’s sketch for his famous canvas The Jack Pine (fig. 1) in the National Gallery of Canada. That sketch is in the collection of The Weir Foundation at RiverBrink, in Queenston, Ontario.
Charles C. Hill