Born in 1877 on a farm in Ontario, the sixth of ten children, Thomas John Thomson began his life rooted to the land beside the sparkling waters of Georgian Bay. At the age of 22, he followed his eldest brother west to the gold rush town of Seattle, where he trained in commercial art and soon found work at a photo engraving firm. He also met the beautiful young Alice Eleanor Lambert.
Thomson returned to Canada in 1905 and continued to work in commercial art. He was encouraged to paint by his new colleagues, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer and Fred Varley, future members of the Group of Seven. Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson and Franklin Carmichael soon became part of Thomson’s circle. When Dr. James MacCallum saw the ‘truthfulness’ of Thomson’s early sketches, he offered financial support, enabling Thomson to devote himself full time to painting.
In 1912 Thomson went to Algonquin Park. He encouraged his colleagues to join him, where they painted together and became known as the Algonquin School. It was at Canoe Lake where Thomson became acquainted with Winnifred Trainor.
On July 8, 1917, just as he was gaining real confidence and mastering his craft, Thomson paddled across Canoe Lake and disappeared. His body surfaced 8 days later. Was it an accident, suicide or murder? The cause of his death remains a mystery to this day.
When Thomson died, his iconic painting The West Wind, with its single tree bent against the strong prevailing winds, was found on his easel in his studio in Toronto. Some feel the painting is unresolved, unfinished, as was Thomson’s life. Others see it as representation of a determined, solitary spirit finding his place in the northern ruggedness of Canada.