Tom Thomson Biography

Tom Thomson was a distinguished Canadian artist and painter during the early part of the 20th century. This biography profiles his childhood, life, career, achievements and timeline

Quick Facts

Famous as: Artist

Nationality: Canadian

Birth Date: August 5, 1877

Died At Age: 39

Sun Sign: Leo

Born in: Claremont

Died on: July 8, 1917

place of death: Canoe Lake

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Tom Thomson was a renowned Canadian painter and artist during the early 20th century, who inspired the formation of the ‘Group of Seven’, the first national school of art in Canada, established in 1920. After taking up different odd jobs in Canada and the US, he returned to his hometown, Ontario, to pursue a career in arts. While working in various photo-engraving firms, he honed his artistic skills and started making weekend painting trips with a couple other adventurous painters, until he discovered Algonquin Park, which became his painting hub. His wilderness-themed paintings and sketches were largely inspired by this provincial park. Some of his career’s most popular artworks have been ‘The Northern River’, ‘The Jack Pine’, and ‘The West Wind’. He died unexpectedly at a time when he had just started mastering his craft and getting some recognition. He is counted among Canada’s hugely talented artists, for his superb portrayal of Canadian wilderness on the canvas, his marvelous use of striking colors, and simple interpretation of landscapes. He has been highly credited and appreciated by art historians for marvelously capturing the rugged beauty of Algonquin Park during the early 1910s.

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Tom Thomson
Childhood & Early Life
  • Thomas John Thomson was born on August 5, 1877, near Claremont, Ontario, as the sixth of ten children, to a farmer John Thomson and Margaret Mathewson.
  • When he was just two months old, his family relocated to Rose Hill, near Leith, north-east of Owen Sound, where he was brought up.
  • Despite his ill health, he completed his education in local schools and showed great interest in sports, swimming, fishing and hunting.
  • His countryside upbringing drew him closer to arts and inspired him to give drawing, music and design a try. However, he was forced to find a job as per the tradition followed by his Scottish family.
  • He volunteered for Second Boer War in 1899, but failed to enlist due to his medical condition. Soon after, he joined Kennedy’s iron foundry as a machine apprentice, but was fired after eight months.
  • Following the footsteps of his two elder brothers, he enrolled in the Canadian Business College, in Chatham, Ontario. He dropped after eight months and moved to Seattle, Washington, in 1901 to help his brother, George, in setting up the Acme Business College.
  • Thereafter, he started working as a commercial artist, which helped him sharpen his skills in lettering and design.
  • He returned to Canada in 1904 and joined a photo-engraving firm, Legg Brothers, in Toronto as a senior artist.
  • In 1909, he moved on from Legg Brothers to Grip Ltd., a renowned Toronto photo-graving firm. Support from the head designer, J.E.H. MacDonald, helped him improve his artistic skills and sharpen his designing sense.
  • He was part of the numerous weekend painting trips made to Toronto’s countryside, which included adventurous budding painters, such as Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, Franz Johnson, and Fred Varley.
  • In 1912, he made his maiden trip to Algonquin Park, which highly inspired most of his future work. Thereafter, he continued exploring the regions around Ontario, with his colleagues.
  • He took up work at Rous and Mann Press, a commercial art firm, in 1912, but left a year later to become a full-time artist.
  • In 1913, his first major painting ‘A Northern Lake’ was put up at the Ontario’s Society of Artists exhibition. The canvas was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada for $250, after which he became a member of the Society.
  • His meeting with art enthusiast Dr. James MacCullum, a renowned Toronto ophthalmologist, at J.E.H. MacDonald’s studio turned fruitful as the latter offered to pay yearly expenses to Thomson to let him devote more time on painting.
  • Since he spent most of his time traveling, he chose to use small, rectangular panels for creating oil sketches as he could carry them easily. Using this technique, he composed hundreds of small sketches till his death.
  • He failed to enlist in the First World War in the summer of 1914 due to health reasons and hence, wasn’t able to move to Europe to work as a war artist, as did his artist friends.
  • From 1914 to 1917, he spent spring to autumn in Algonquin Park, making sketches in spring and fall and working as a guide and fire ranger during summers, eventually becoming a great canoeist and woodsman.
  • He spent winters in Toronto, sharing his Studio One, in the Studio Building, and quarters first with fellow artist, A.Y. Jackson, and later with Franklin Carmichael, after Jackson left. Thereafter, he shifted into a shack outside the Studio Building.
  • Some of his outstanding creations have been housed in Canadian galleries at Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
  • Some of his famous paintings are ‘The clearing’, ‘Lake, shore and sky’, ‘Tea Lake dam’, ‘Blue Lake’, ‘Sunset’, ‘Spring ice’, ‘The pool’, and ‘In the northland’.
  • His popular sketches are ‘Petawawa gorges’, ‘Northern lights’, ‘Moose at night’, ‘Tamaracks’, ‘The waterfall’, ‘Woodland waterfall’, and ‘The drive’.
Major Works
  • He used a unique method of creating on-the-spot sketches and expanding them into large oil finished studio paintings, which resulted in three of his most popular works, such as ‘The Jack Pine’, ‘The West Wind’, and ‘The Northern River’.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • In 1901 while living in Seattle with his brother George, he met Alice Elinor Lambert, and developed a romantic relationship with her for a short time.
  • Being a passionate fisherman, he used to often go on canoeing trips to Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. It was during one such trip on July 8, 1917 that he went missing, and his body was found floating on the lake eight days later.
  • Though the initial cause of his death was recorded as accidental drowning, the truth remains a mystery till date, as to whether it was an accident, murder or suicide.
  • He was buried in Mowat Cemetery, near Canoe Lake, on July 17, 1917. However, the body was exhumed and re-interred in the family plot next to Leith Presbyterian Church on July 21, upon his brother, George’s request.
  • His unexpected and untimely death left over 50 canvases and 300 sketches, which were unreleased.
  • A stone cairn as a memorial was erected by J.E.H. MacDonald, Dr. MacCullum, and J.W. Beatty on Hayhurst Point overlooking Canoe Lake, where Thomson often camped, in September 1917.
  • The Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery was opened in Owen Sound in 1967, as a mark of tribute to this amazing artist.

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- Tom Thomson Biography
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Last Updated
- October 31, 2017

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