‘Are these new Canadian painters crazy?’: A century of the Group of Seven

A hundred years ago in Toronto, the Group of Seven held its first exhibition — and responses were decidedly mixed
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on May 07, 2020
From left to right: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald. (Wikimedia Commons)

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“The group of seven artists whose pictures are here exhibited have for several years held a like vision concerning Art in Canada. They are all imbued with the idea that an Art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people.” — Introduction to the catalogue for the Group of Seven’s first exhibition, May 1920

Frank Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank (later Franz) Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley: the original Group of Seven loomed large in the development of Canadian art during the 20th century. It emerged at a time when discussions of Canadian identity were on the rise, and a mythology grew up around it that cast its modern landscapes as a radical response to the older, traditional European styles preferred by artists and their patrons. But members did not feel immediately welcomed as trailblazers; they claimed, for example, that their work was critically trashed after their debut exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto (AGT, now the Art Gallery of Ontario) a century ago this week. The reality, though, was more complex. 

The Toronto-based artists and independent painters who formed the Group of Seven came together over the decade leading up to the exhibition. Their ideas about art developed over lunches at the Arts and Letters Club, at workspaces in the Studio Building, on sketching trips, and at exhibitions. As early as 1913, F.H. Gadsby mocked their approach, calling it part of the “Hot Mush School”: “The younger set believes in Explosions, Outbursts, and Acute Congestions of Pigments, but in drawing, Never!” Gadsby wrote in the Toronto Daily Star. “You can always draw when there’s nothing else to do — that is to say, when the paint runs out.” While they tended to depict themselves as outcasts, their artistic explorations were supported by several members of the establishment, including National Gallery of Canada director Eric Brown and AGT founder Sir Edmund Walker.

In April 1919, Harris, MacDonald, and Johnston held an exhibition of their sketches of the Algoma region at the AGT. Despite critical praise, none of the 145 works displayed sold. Later that year, they applied to the AGT to hold another exhibition featuring a wider array of artists. A meeting of all the featured Toronto artists (except Jackson, who was on a sketching trip along Georgian Bay) was held at Harris’s house on Queen’s Park Crescent in March 1920. The name “Group of Seven” was either settled on at this meeting or chosen soon after. Up until this point, some had referred to them as the “Algonquin Park School,” but the artists felt this name was too limiting geographically. 

Opened on May 7, 1920, the exhibition contained 114 works by the Group, along with seven pieces from Quebec artists Randolph Hewton, Albert Robinson, and Robert Pilot. The catalogue featured a manifesto that said that, whenever Canadians developed art that was vital and distinctive, it would be greeted with “ridicule, abuse, or indifference.” It suggested that art buyers, set in their tastes, preferred to “enrich the salesman than accept the productions by artists native to the land, whose work is more distinctive, original, and vital, and of greater value to the country.” It criticized people who believed it was impossible for Canada, being so new, to develop its own art traditions, asking, “How then do traditions arise?” 

It went on to assert that a small group of intelligent people, who realized that the greatness of any country depended on “its Words, its Deeds, and its Art,” would recognize that art was an essential human element and “support any form of Art expression that sincerely interprets the spirit of a nation’s growth.” The artists wrote that they made “no pretence of being the only ones in Canada doing significant work” but that their creations were “significant and of real value to the country.” The manifesto ended with a request for viewers to criticize the works if they didn’t like them but to be open to appreciating something different.

Perhaps some Group members were disappointed that the response from the local press was positive. Under the headline “Seven Painters Show Some Excellent Work,” the Toronto Daily Star’s Margaret Fairbairn praised aspects of each artist’s work, from Carmichael’s colourful images of fall to the desolateness of Harris’s homes. The Globe felt that the exhibition showed “the breadth and directness which characterizes the tendency of the modern school.” The Mail and Empire viewed the work not as radical, but as “gorgeously decorated.” In a Canadian Courier magazine piece titled “Are These New Canadian Painters Crazy?” Augustus Bridle concluded they weren’t. “They are not decadent, but creative,” Bridle wrote. “They go direct to nature. Their aim in art is greater virility and they have got it.” 

In his book A Painter’s Country (1958), Jackson recalled more mixed reactions from visitors: some, he said, had been amused; others had threatened to resign their gallery memberships. “There was plenty of adverse criticism, little of it intelligent,” he wrote. “A great deal of it was mere abuse, much of it from people who had not even seen the exhibition. It came not only from laymen but from artists as well.” Words like “ugly” and “mad” were reputedly used to describe the Group’s work. 

Overall, the exhibition drew 2,146 visitors before closing on May 27, 1920. Only three pieces — two Carmichael sketches and a Pilot pastel — were bought by the public. Eric Brown acquired three works for the National Gallery of Canada: Jackson’s “Night, Georgian Bay” ($200), Johnston’s “Fire Swept, Algoma” ($750), and Harris’s “Shacks” ($1,000). He would have bought more, he said, but he faced resistance from gallery trustee Senator Arthur Boyer, who disliked all the exhibited works. “It seems probable,” MacDonald observed, “that we shall have to pay, as usual, for the privilege of giving the Toronto public an art education.”

When the Association of American Art Directors asked Brown to assemble a show of Canadian art to send around the United States, he selected around 30 of the Group’s works and some pieces by Tom Thomson, who had associated with its members before his death in 1917. The exhibition debuted in Worcester, Massachusetts, in November 1920, and travelled across the Midwest and Northeast before closing in Muskegon, Michigan, in January 1922. “In general,” the Detroit Free Press observed, “the exhibit deserves special notice because the artists have dared to express themselves instead of weakly attempting to express someone else.” 

The only sale was Harris’s “A Side Street,” which was purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts but eventually made its way back to Canada. A second travelling exhibition was sent across western Canada in 1921, stopping in communities stretching from Fort William to Edmonton. As several places lacked galleries, alternate viewing venues were used: in Moose Jaw, the works were displayed in a furniture store. When pieces by the Group were included in the reopening of the National Gallery of Canada, in September 1921, the Ottawa Citizen noted that “the result of their work is strikingly fresh and distinctive and as native to Canada as the northland scenes they portray.”

When the Group’s second AGT exhibition opened in May 1921, it lacked one member. Johnston had been seeing increased demand for his work — he had, for example, had a show at Eaton’s downtown flagship store in December 1920 — and he was concerned that criticism and ridicule of the Group’s overall work would affect his future sales.

Despite weak sales during their early exhibits, the Group of Seven saw its prestige grow — although so, too, did criticism of its style: in 1924, academics, critics, and, members of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts kicked up a fuss after it was included in the official Canadian art entry for the British Empire Exhibition, in London, England. As time passed, though, its works became iconic. According to art historian William Colgate, response to the Group moved through stages: surprise, opposition, and, finally, acceptance. “The stagnant waters of Canadian art at the time, as contemporary exhibition catalogues show,” Colgate wrote in 1943, “much needed the freshness of a stirring breeze.”

“We broke old traditions,” Harris observed in the mid-1960s. “We awakened and enlivened a fresh interest in art amongst Canadians. Today the artist works in a more responsive and wider field than we did as a group.” Around that time, Jackson concluded that “the battle was all but won. The old wail about there being nothing to paint in Canada was no longer heard.”

Sources: Group of 7 Catalogue Exhibition of Paintings (Toronto: Art Museum of Toronto, 1920); Canadian Art by William Colgate (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1943); The Story of the Group of Seven by Lawren Harris (Toronto: Rous & Mann, 1964); A Painter’s Country by A.Y. Jackson (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1958); Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010); A History of Canadian Culture by Jonathan Vance (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2009); the May 22, 1920 edition of Canadian Courier; the June 5, 1921 edition of the Detroit Free Press; the May 11, 1920 edition of the Globe; the September 3, 1960 edition of the Globe and Mail; the May 10, 1920 edition of the Mail and Empire; the September 21, 1921 edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the June 1995 edition of Saturday Night; and the December 13, 1913, and May 7, 1920 editions of the Toronto Daily Star.

To learn more, watch the documentary Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven on TVO.org.

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