Born in Claremont, Ontario in 1877 and raised near Owen Sound, though not an official member of the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson was the inspiration for the artists who would go on to become Canada's most iconic painters.
2012 marked the 100th anniversary of Tom Thomson's’ first painting adventure in Algonquin Park. In the spring of 1912, he made a trip to Huntsville to visit his good friend, Dr. J.M. McReur. It was McReur who suggested to Thomson that he would find ample of ideas for painting in Algonquin. So in the summer of that same year, encouraged by his boss and coworkers to try his hand at painting, Thomson took a train north from Toronto and arrived at Canoe Lake in the park. Not yet being confident of his skills, he set out to paint sketches while exploring the wilderness around him. At the end of that summer, at the age of 35, Thomson would return to work in Toronto, bringing along his handful of 8" x 10" painted wooden panels.
When Tom showed the works to his boss and coworkers, they were blown away by what they saw. These original works so impacted his friends that they encouraged Tom to do even more painting. They themselves would dramatically change their own styles to explore even deeper what Thomson had discovered on his own. For the next five years Thomson would spend his summers in Algonquin Park, and invite his friends to partake in the joys of a rugged life in the woods, and of painting the Canadian wilderness. Tom’s life was centered around the Town Of Mowatt on Canoe Lake, where he was to become a fixture in the community as he travelled to all reaches of the park.
In 1912 Thomson's first sketches showed the promise of a strong artist discovering a style of his own, which would emerge more fully in successive works. Exploding with colour and vitality, his art eventually revealed a genius that far surpassed the promise of those early Algonquin Park sketches.
Making the Leap to Artist
It not until 1913 that Tom Thomson decided to become a full-time artist, undertaking this life-changing step after the sale of his painting called "Northern Lake." Shown at the 41st Annual Exhibition of The Ontario Society of Artists and purchased by the Ontario government, it sold for $250.00 (quite a lot by today’s standards, though nothing compared to its value today).
This led Tom to ask for a leave of absence from his job to go on a sketching trip up north for the summer. He tried his hand at being a fire ranger in the Timmins area, but this left him with little time for his art. By-mid summer he was back at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, doing what he liked best: taking long canoe trips and sketching his way through the wilderness. Tom stayed in the park painting at various sites and locations through November.
Upon returning to Toronto he was introduced to the artist A.Y. Jackson at a friend's studio. This meeting with Jackson would create a lasting friendship, and have a powerful effect on Thomson’s development as an artist. Soon they were to work in the same studio space, where A.Y. Jackson shared his experience in art and art movements. This would prompt Tom to create and explore different techniques and ideas – innovations that were soon to change the landscape of Canada’s art culture, and a new tolerance for and acceptance of modern art.
The Mystery of Tom Thomson's Death: The Missing Paddle
Tom Thomson's death on July 8, 1917 was ruled an accidental drowning.
Witnesses that day reported that Tom Thomson was last seen leaving the dock of Mowatt Lodge in Algonquin Park, off to go fishing at approximately 6am. His canoe was later found overturned, floating in Canoe Lake, with no sign of Tom. Considering that Tom was an excellent outdoorsmen, swimmer, and an expert paddler in a canoe, his friends began to look for him on shore, figuring he may be hurt and the canoe had drifted away on him. The search was in vain.
Eight days later, Tom's body rose to the surface and was retrieved by friends. The mystery of his death arises because his body was found with a significant wound and bruising to the head. The explanation was that Tom must have fallen out of his canoe and hit his head on the gunnel on the way into the water, thus knocking him unconscious, and leading to his drowning death.
One indisputable fact remains that makes this mystery deeper than just a drowning; Tom Thomson's paddle was never found.
Surely, if he had up righted his canoe and banged his head on his way toward death in the water, the paddle he was using would also have floated to the surface like his overturned canoe. Whether the paddle would have floated near the canoe or drifted towards a different shore, it still would have shown up sooner or later. But it was never found, suggesting to many that it was never in the canoe in the first place.
It's the million dollar question, for if the paddle had shown up, it would be much more plausible to see that Thomson had gotten into trouble on the water. This leads to all the speculation and myth, and the persistent folklore that Tom Thomson was mysteriously murdered on July 8, 1917. By whom and by what means we may never know. However, if you ever find that paddle, let us know…