In the early decades of the twentieth century, circumstances brought together several artists who were committed to exploring, through art, the unique character of the Canadian landscape. Collectively, they agreed that the country's rugged wilderness regions needed to be recorded in a distinctive painting style that broke with European tradition and reflected an increasingly nationalistic sentiment. Today, these men have become the most famous amongst Canadian artists, and are renowned for their contribution to Canadian art.
In their early careers many of the artists who would later form the Group of Seven were employed at commercial design firms. It was while working at Grip Ltd. that Tom Thomson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston and Franklin Carmichael first met and discovered their common artistic interests. The artists began taking weekend sketching trips together, and would often gather at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto to socialize and discuss new directions for Canadian art.
In 1913 Lawren Harris convinced A.Y. Jackson to move to Toronto from Montreal. In that same year, Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald visited the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo for an exhibition of Scandinavian paintings. The show supported their vision for a distinctly Canadian art. Lawren Harris was most responsible for the subsequent formation of the Group of Seven.
Tom Thomson's untimely death in 1917 was a great loss for the Canadian art world. Although he did not live to see the inaugural Group of Seven exhibition, Thomson's name became synonymous with the Group of Seven. His sketches and finished canvases sought to break with the European landscape tradition and create a painting style more representative of the Canadian landscape and experience.
The seven founding members of the Group were: Lawren S. Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael and A.Y. Jackson. Their first exhibition opened at the Art Gallery of Toronto in May 1920, marking an important moment in the history of Canadian art. It was the decision of these founding members to exhibit as the Group of Seven. To this day, when speaking of these talented artists the reference is always to the Group of Seven even though, over the years, there were actually ten members.
Frank Johnston only exhibited in one of the 1920 exhibitions and, following his resignation from the Group, A.J. Casson was invited to join in 1926. In an effort to widen the geographical base away from Toronto, Edwin Holgate of Montreal was asked to join in 1930. Although L.L. FitzGerald of Winnipeg joined the Group in 1932, the final Group of Seven exhibition was held in 1931.
The Group of Seven's determination and their belief in Canadian culture was immensely influential in the years following the 1920 exhibition. That influence prevails to this day, and, for many, these artists have come to symbolize the concept of a distinctly Canadian identity.
Read about the life of Lawren Harris