With the tragic death of Tom Thomson in July, 1917, there disappeared from Canadian art a unique personality. Thomson’s short and meteoric career, the daring handling and unusual subjects of his pictures, the life he led, set him apart. Living in the woods and even when in town avoiding the haunts of artists, he was to the public an object of mysterious interest. He lived his own life, did his work in his own way, and died in the land of his dearest visions.
It was in October, 1912, that I first met him – in the studio of J. E. H. MacDonald. The door opened and in walked a tall, slim, clean cut, dark young chap who was introduced to me as Tom Thomson. Quiet, reserved, chary of words, he interested me, for I had heard of his adventures in the Mississauga Forest Reserve. I asked MacDonald to get some of his sketches so that I might get an idea of what the country is like. This was done, and as I looked them over I realized their truthfulness, their feeling and their sympathy with the grim, fascinating northland. Dark they were, muddy in colour, tight, and not wanting in technical defects, but they made me feel that the North had gripped Thomson, as it had gripped me ever since, when a boy of eleven, I first sailed and paddled through its silent places.
The following March, at an exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, my attention was attracted to a picture – one of the small northern lakes swept by a northwest wind; a squall just passing from the far shore, the water crisp, sparklingly blue and broken into short, white-caps – a picture full of light, life and vigour. This picture, “A Northern Lake”, the first one exhibited by Thomson, was purchased by the Ontario Government.
Autumn came again, and at last my numerous inquiries were rewarded by the information that “Tom has come home again”. His hiding-place in a boarding-house I at last discovered, and found his walls covered with sketches. Half of them I borrowed to look over at my leisure, for he had sought to depict lightning flashes, moving thunder-storms, and trees with branches lashing in the wind. These sketches so interested the painter A. Y. Jackson, that he asked to meet Thomson, and ended by sharing his studio with him.
At the next exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, in 1914, Thomson exhibited two pictures, one of which, “A Moonlight Scene”, was purchased for the National Gallery at Ottawa. As spring came on, it was arranged that the artist should go with me on a trip amongst the islands of the Georgian Bay and remain there at my summer home until August. Leaving my place, he paddled and portaged all the way from Go Home to Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, where he was joined by Jackson, who had been painting in the Rockies. Before leaving me, we had a long talk about his work. I said to him: “Jackson has had what you have not – an academic training. He has a brighter colour sense, but he has not the feeling you have. You can learn much from him, and he from you, but you must not try to be another Jackson. Learn all you can from him, but, whatever you do, keep your own individuality.”
Jackson and he camped together and painted until the snow and cold weather drove them back to the city.
Three months of steady painting in his studio, and early March found him growing more and more restless. His fishing lures made by himself, and strung like necklaces on the wall, gradually disappeared from their accustomed place. Then we knew that his flitting time was near. One day he would say “If I don’t get up there now, the snow will all be gone.” Next day his shack would be empty.
And so his year passed by.
Thomson's knowledge of the appearance at night of the woods and lakes was unrivalled. He was wont to paddle out into the centre of the lake on which he happened to be camping and spend the whole night there in order to get away from the flies and mosquitoes. Motionless he studied the night skies and the changing outline of the shores while beaver and otter played around his canoe. Puffing slowly at his pipe, he watched the smoke of his campfire slowly curling up amongst the pines, through which peeped here and there a star, or wondered at the amazing northern lights flashing across the sky, his reverie broken by the howling of wolves of the whistling of a buck attracted by the fire. In his nocturnes, whether of the moonlight playing across the lake, or touching the brook through the gloom of the forest, or of the tent shown up in the darkness by the dim light of the candle within, or of the driving rain suddenly illuminated by the flash of lightning, or of the bare birch tops forming beautiful peacock fans against the cold wind-driven blue skies, one feels that it is nature far apart, unsullied by the intruder man.[...]
It has not been the fortune of any of our artists to have had during their lifetime a vogue with the Canadian public. Thomson was no exception. To the art critics of the daily press he was an enigma, something which, because beyond the pale of their experience, it seemed quite safe to ridicule. Yet in one magazine a courageous writer ventured to say, “Tom Thomson can put the spirit of Canada on a piece of board eight inches by ten inches.”
The intelligent public rather liked his work, but was not quite sure whether it was the safe and proper thing to say so. He found recognition, however, among his fellow artists, who looked forward with pleasure and curiosity to see what he would show at each exhibition. It is to the credit of the Ontario Government and the trustees of the National Gallery of Ottawa that they recognized his value. He never exhibited at the Ontario Society of Artists without having one of his pictures bought for the Province of the Dominion. These will remain for succeeding generations, the ultimate arbiters of the reputation of all artists. Confidently we leave to them the fame of “Tom Thomson, artist and woodsman, who lived humbly but passionately with the wild.”
(J. M. MacCallum, "Tom Thomson: Painter of the North ," The Canadian Magazine, March 31, 1918)