Thomas John (Tom) Thomson
1877 - 1917
Landscape with Trees
oil on board
on verso dated 1911 and inscribed "Tom Thomson" and "signed by Geo. Thomson" and with various letters and numbers
4 1/4 x 6 1/8 in 10.8 x 15.6 cm
Estimate: $125,000 - $175,000
Sold for: $145,250
A gift from the Artist to Ross and Flora McKeen on their wedding day, June 15, 1911
By descent to Dr. John (Jock) McKeen, Hamilton, Ontario
By descent to Dr. J.H.R. McKeen, Gabriola Island, British Columbia
Sold sale of Canadian Art, Joyner Fine Art, November 21, 1990, lot 212
Kaspar Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Ontario
Private Collection, Vancouver
The legend of Tom Thomson is knocked off balance by a painting like Landscape with Trees. Without Algonquin Park, or a far shore, or a pine tree in sight, it is a springboard for a richer understanding of Thomson, charged with his strong painterly intuition.
Thomson began working as a commercial artist in 1902 when he started with Maring and Ladd in Seattle. After he moved to Toronto in 1905, he worked for Legg Brothers as a senior artist. In 1906 he may have received the only formal art instruction of his life from William Cruikshank, who also taught future Group of Seven members Franklin Carmichael, Frank Johnston and J.E.H. MacDonald. This solid, if not stolid, fine art training was augmented informally with more intrepid approaches and techniques after he went to work for MacDonald at Grip Ltd. in 1909. In February 1911, Arthur Lismer was hired at Grip, and then Carmichael followed in April of that year. As Thomson’s network of friends at Grip expanded, his attendance at MacDonald’s solo exhibition of sketches at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, where he met Lawren Harris in November 1911, showed his interest and outgoing nature. These circumstances are invaluable for understanding Thomson’s network and the increasing seriousness of his fine art.
Months after Thomson’s birth in Claremont, Ontario, northeast of Toronto, the Thomson family moved to Leith, approximately 10 kilometres northeast of Owen Sound and nearly 200 kilometres northwest of Toronto, on the southwestern shore of Georgian Bay. Thomson’s father purchased about 40 hectares of land for a farm that became the Thomsons’ home until Tom moved to Chatham, Ontario, in 1900 to attend the Canada Business College. The Leith landscape’s gentle terrain, with its variegated greens of farmland, copses and distant views, was a common subject of Thomson’s 1911 paintings.
Thomson was primed for the Algonquin Park landscape when he arrived there in 1913, but his reaction to it was hardly an epiphany. In Landscape with Trees Thomson is clearly thinking about vision and how to convey it with paint. Broken into clear foreground, middle ground, background and a warm, vaporous, crepuscular sky, the composition is punctuated with a hedgerow, a row of trees in the centre of the image, and a distant horizon separating earth from sky. Dashes of red and raw sienna mixed into white bring the foreground closer to the viewer. Like many artists early in their careers, Thomson’s development was indirect. Sometimes it seems he went two steps forward and one step backward in order to regroup and advance with force. Landscape with Trees is a striking example of Thomson moving confidently two steps forward.
Painted two years before his first public exhibition with the Ontario Society of Artists, Landscape with Trees bears the influence of MacDonald’s sketches of a few years earlier. Thomson’s studious wet-in-wet painting, and especially in the foliage of the trees in the centre of the composition, brings to mind MacDonald’s technique in his studies from 1908 to 1910. In the close quarters and collegial atmosphere of Grip’s art room, talk of weekend sketching activities and the occasional informal critique would have informed Thomson of more intrepid approaches and techniques than Cruikshank would or could have offered. Landscape with Trees bears the germ of a unique Canadian painting growing and flowering in the land. Thomson looked at a landscape he knew well from childhood to adulthood, a place with intimate associations and knowledge for him.
The painting was a gift from Thomson to his neighbour from Leith, Ross McKeen, when McKeen married Flora Brown in Toronto on June 15, 1911. Although Thomson was not one of the witnesses on the marriage affidavit, he lived in Toronto then, and presumably presented Landscape with Trees (along with Landscape with a Lake, 1911, Thomson catalogue raisonné #1911.03, not in this sale) to the newly married couple. This enchanting painting with a wonderful back story is more than an accomplished study by a great Canadian artist at the outset of his career. It is part of the biography that demystifies the artist, and a part of the oeuvre that signals his burgeoning talent.
We thank Gregory Humeniuk, art historian, writer and curator, for contributing the above essay.
This work is included in the Tom Thomson catalogue raisonné, catalogue #1911.04, researched and written by Joan Murray, and can be viewed at http:/tomthomsoncatalogue.org/catalogue/entry.php?id=79.
Estimate: $125,000 - $175,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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