Tom was never understood by lots of people, was very quiet, modest and, as a friend of mine spoke of him, a gentle soul. He cared nothing for social life, but with one or two companions on a sketching and fishing trip with his pipe and Hudson Bay tobacco going, he was a delightful companion. If a party or the boys got a little loud or rough Tom would get his sketching kit and wander off alone. At times he liked to be that way, wanted to be by himself commune [sic] with nature.
Thomas John Thomson (August 5, 1877 – July 8, 1917) was a Canadian artist active in the early 20th century. During his short career he produced roughly 400 oil sketchs on small wood panels along with around 50 larger works on canvas. His works consist almost entirely of landscapes, depicting trees, skies, lakes, and rivers. His paintings use broad brush strokes and a liberal application of paint to capture the beauty and colour of the Ontario landscape. Thomson’s accidental death at 39 by drowning came just after the founding of the Group of Seven and is seen as a tragedy for Canadian art.
Raised in rural Ontario, Thomson was born into a large family of farmers and displayed no immediate artistic talent. He worked several jobs before attending a business college, eventually developing skills in penmanship and copperplate writing. At the turn of the 20th century, he was employed in Seattle and Toronto as a pen artist at several different photoengraving firms, including Grip Ltd. There he met those who eventually formed the Group of Seven, including J. E. H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Arthur Lismer. In May 1912, he visited Algonquin Park—a major public park and forest reservation in Central Ontario—for the first time. It was there that he acquired his first sketching equipment and, following MacDonald’s advice, began to capture nature scenes. He became enraptured with the area and repeatedly returned, typically spending his winters in Toronto and the rest of the year in the Park. While his earliest paintings were not outstanding technically, they showed a good grasp of composition and colour handling. His later paintings vary in composition and contain vivid colours and thickly applied paint. His later work has had a great influence on Canadian art—paintings such as The Jack Pine and The West Wind have taken a prominent place in the culture of Canada and are some of the country’s most iconic works.
Thomson developed a reputation during his lifetime as a veritable outdoorsman, talented in both fishing and canoeing, although his talents in the latter have been contested. The circumstances of his drowning on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, linked with his image as a master canoeist, led to unsubstantiated but persistent rumours that he had been murdered or committed suicide.
Although he died before the formal establishment of the Group of Seven, Thomson is often considered an unofficial member. His art is typically exhibited with the rest of the Group’s, nearly all of which remains in Canada—mainly at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg and the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound.
Tom Thomson was last seen alive around mid-day, July 8, 1917, when setting out alone across Canoe Lake to begin a fishing trip. He was familiar with the area, having visited there a number of times – while working in the Park as a fire ranger, a guide for fishing parties, and of course, pursuing his painting. Within hours of his departure, his empty canoe was spotted floating not far from the dock he had left from, and more than a week later, his body surfaced in the lake. His untimely death helped transform the aspiring artist into a cultural giant. His paintings are now seen in galleries across Canada, and exhibitions of his work always attract large audiences. In the last few years, paintings by Thomson have fetched over a million dollars at auction.
How Thomson died, who found his body, its condition, and even its final resting place all remain mysteries. Some propose the cause of Thomson’s death was an accident resulting from plain bad luck, while others suggest suicide, and still others point to foul play resulting from a conflict over debt, a love interest, or opinions about the war effort. To add even more mystery to the affair there are serious questions regarding whether Thomson’s body was moved from its first resting place.
Could it be that Algonquin Park, and Canoe Lake, were more dangerous than they appeared in Thomson’s paintings? As investigators began to consider the artist’s mysterious death, popular ideas of a peaceful, harmonious, natural parkland began to evaporate. The region bore the marks of intensive logging – treacherous stumps and logs lurked under the water’s surface. Could one of these have tipped Thomson’s canoe, resulting in his drowning? Could his death have resulted from something even more frightening? The abundant wildlife the Park helped protect presented a tempting target for poachers, who might be willing to go to extreme ends to hide their illegal activities. Could the trains coming through the Park, carrying troops and goods important for the war effort have attracted spies and saboteurs desperate to hide their subversions? The isolation of the Park might also have attracted Canadian and American men attempting to avoid fighting in the war. How far might one of these men have gone to maintain their anonymity?
As you survey the evidence gathered here, you will learn about Tom Thomson’s life, his artist friends and acquaintances in the Park, and the Park itself. Thomson’s death poses some unresolved questions that have vexed researchers for decades. As you conduct your own investigation, and read theories proposed by others, you might even discover you have enough evidence to support your own theory of who, or what, was responsible for Tom Thomson’s death. You might also find it intriguing to compare your observations to those of the site Research Director, Gregory Klages. Klages is the author of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction (Dundurn 2016).