History of Canadian Visual Art

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The Invisible Indigenous: How the Colonial Gaze Influenced the Group of Seven’s Vision of Canada’s Visual Identity

The colonial gaze is defined as “the way in which the colonial agenda seeks to maintain and legitimate power by determining colonial realities, including the dehumanization of colonial subjects and the perpetual separation of Us (colonizers, civilized) and Other (colonized, savage) (IGI Global).” The end of World War I saw Canada striving to define its national identity and with that, a distinct visual culture. It was believed undoubtedly, at a time when the nation was striving to define its unique character, that Native culture and peoples in Canada were on the edge of extinction and that they no longer belonged to or had an influential place within the new emerging Canadian culture. This perceived absence of aboriginal art led to non-aboriginal artists naturally moving in to occupy the places constructed to represent the new national visual identity. Prominent and celebrated artists of the time including Tom Thomson and members of the Group of Seven represented a new Canadian visual identity even though they clearly subscribed to the colonial influences of British landscape traditions. The influence of the colonial gaze during the formation of Canada’s visual identity is seen not only through the exclusion of Indigenous art but also through representation in non-indigenous artist’s images.

The Group of Seven started as eight artists: Franklin Carmichael, Lawren S. Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arther Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley, and Tom Thomson. A few were British and a few were Canadian-born but all of them lived in Toronto. All except Harris and Jackson were were connected through their work at the same design firm, and all, except Thomson, were members of Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club. These connections as well as their affinity for a specific style of landscape painting were notable enough that they began to be recognised as a collective. Their style as a collective featured boldly coloured paintings based on sketches they made during their explorations of Northern Canada. Before the group could became official, their plans were put on hold by the turmoil of World War I and were further postponed when when Thomson drowned tragically during a trip to Algonquin Park in 1917.

The Group of Seven’s iconic landscape paintings combined colonial conceptions of wilderness and the land with Canadian identity and colonial dominance. Simon Schama suggests, “National identity… would lose much of its ferocious enchantment without the mystique of a particular landscape tradition; its topography mapped, elaborated and enriched as a homeland.” The Group of Seven’s painted landscape played an important role in creating the picture of a national identity in relation to nature. Withstanding the test of time, these bold images of a wild and untouched land hold an iconic place in Canada’s national identity. In this way the Group of Seven’s revered vision continues to support the erasure of Canada’s ingenious people and clearly upholds the colonial gaze.

Tom Thomson stands as arguably the most important artist in Canadian history. A forerunner of the Group of Seven, his place in the history of Canadian art and his role in giving the nation a sense of identity is due to his evocative art and his drive, influenced by American poets Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, to find spirituality in nature and to create a unique cultural identity separate from its European origins. Thomson, along with other Canadian artists of the early 1900s, focused on the Canadian landscape which echoed the increasingly nationalistic sentiment of a firmly fixed love for the rugged natural beauty of Canada. Inspired by sketching trips into the wilderness, Thomson’s intention was to produce work in a style that deviated from traditional European art traditions. The wild and untamed landscape provided a undeniable contrast to the cultivated, soft edges of British landscape painting.

Autumn, Algonquin Park , is an example of Thomson’s bold and rugged style. The painting is simple in its composition with the image broken into thirds. Bands spanning the width of the panel are broken up by a wind-beaten tree. Thomson furthers his bold style by using splashes of contrasting colours: the bright yellow leaves against the pale blue sky, the red against

Thomson, Tom. Autumn, Algonquin Park. 1916. Oil on panel, 21.6 x 26.7 cm. A.K. Prakash Collection, Toronto Web. 21 June. 2019. Digital Image. The deep blue of the water. The landscape is timeless, containing no trace of people nor their histories. The land presents itself unoccupied, a blank canvas upon which the colonial gaze is free to create its own history and identity. This representation of a wilderness void of human occupancy advertised a nation free for the taking and solidified the belief that the indigenous people were, in fact, on their way to extinction.

Like Thomson, Lawren Harris painted images depicting Canada’s raw natural beauty. Harris was a founding member and one of the main driving forces behind the formation of the Group of Seven. Many of his pieces speak to the way the Group’s paintings falsely portray the landscapes they chose to represent as wild, unexplored, unspoiled and, most importantly, unoccupied. Harris’s painting, Icebergs, Davis Strait, clouds, sky, and ice are created using bold geometric

Harris, Lawren. Icebergs, Davis Strait. 1930. oil on canvas, 121.9 x 152.4 cm. McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Toronto Web. 21 June. 2019. Digital Image. John O’Brian notes that when Harris wrote about “the great north and its living whiteness,” he was not only speaking the portrayal of icy winter scenes but was also painting a picture of national identity through the dominance of the white race. Harris and his contemporaries felt that they were among the first artists to give Canada a national visual identity. Northrop Frye, one of the most influential literary critics of the 20th century, points out the tendency of many members of the Group of Seven to omit their immediate surroundings and instead focus on depicting the distant background as a sort of sublime, anagogic space of mystery and purity: “What is furthest in distance is often nearest in intensity […] This focusing on the farthest distance makes the foreground [something] to be looked past, not at.” Evidence of this treatment of composition can be found in some of Harris’s early works in the Ward, as the viewer’s gaze is usually

Harris, Lawren. Red House and Yellow Sleigh.1919, oil on pulpboard, 26.7 x 33.7 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Web. 21 June. 2019. Digital Image. Drawn to the vivid houses rather than to the figure. But it was in his Northern landscapes that this exclusionary process was pushed to its limit, in his complete compositional omission of the Inuit peoples that would have been in his direct line of vision. Apparently looking directly at Canada, Harris omitted the Inuit from even the margins of identity.

In contrast to Harris, Frederick Varley was focused on figure as well as landscape painting. Though he was recognised for his portrait painting, perhaps his most well-know painting, Stormy Weather Georgian Bay, is an example of Varley’s commitment to the Group of Seven.

Varley, Frederick. Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay. 1921. oil on canvas. 132.6 x 162.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Web. 12 June. 2019. Digital Image.

While Stormy Weather showed his solidarity to the style of the group, Varely’s work stood out. Unlike the other members, he chose to include figures in his work. In his piece, A Wind-Swept Shore, a figure walks towards the foreground of an otherwise classic Group of Seven landscape. To see a figure, and arguably an indigenous figure, in this painting might read as an exception to the idea that the Group of Seven was using their art to effectively erase indigenous people but here Varley demonstrates that human figures exist within the prevailing image of Canada’s wilderness aesthetic. This simplified reading of the artwork, however, contradicts the intricacy of the relationship between these bodies and the landscape they live in. In A Wind-Swept Shore (see fig.5.), the figure is painted and blended into the landscape to the point that they become almost indistinguishable from it. The figure is not featured with the landscape as much as it is the landscape. Varely has created his vision of a savage, untamed landscape and by blending the Aboriginal figure into this rugged wilderness he has effectively fused the indigenous person to the same ideals as the land: raw, harsh, and uncivilised.

Varley, Frederick. A Wind-Swept Shore. 1922. oil on wood panel. 30 x 40.6 cm. McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Toronto Web. 21 June. 2019. Digital Image. accept that along with the land, the figure is wild, untamed and ready to be inhabited, dominated and taught the ways of civilised society.

Alexander Young Jackson (1882-1974) was one of the founding members of the Group of Seven. His work is recognized by his use of bold, rich colour and softened, rounded forms. In keeping with the Group of Seven’s recognisable landscapes, Jackson produced many images of Canada’s untamed wilderness. One of his most highly regarded paintings, Terre Sauvage, depicts a region which, in reality, was peppered with cottagers. Jackson chose to paint it uninhabited.

Jackson, A.Y.. Terre Sauvage. 1912. oil on canvas. 128.8 x 154.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Web. 26 June. 2019. Digital Image. He often excluded human inhabitants from his work and a blatant example of this practice is seen in his depictions of the Sahtu (Bear Lake) region. In 1938 he travelled to Port Radium where he produced Radium Mine, Great Bear Lake (see fig.7.), one of a number of paintings that are now among his more valuable works. Jackson’s trips to the Sahtu (Bear Lake) region were sponsored by Eldorado Mining and Refining, the company that owned the mine at Port Radium. During his trip in 1938 and later visits in 1949 and 1959, Jackson composed many works consisting of sketches and oil paintings. These works were displayed extensively and considered influential to the Group of Seven and Canada’s visual identity.

Jackson, A.Y.. Radium Mine, Great Bear Lake. 1938. oil on canvas. Web. 26 June. 2019. Digital Image. His images of the mines at Port Radium are a marriage of natural landscape and industrial progress. Jackson depicted Great Bear Lake as a wilderness enlisted in industrial servitude. Jackson’s images begin to visualise the next steps in the colonial agenda where an empty wilderness ready to be explored and ripe for the taking is now groomed and utilised for modern industry. In this sense, Jackson’s Port Radium images represent a new phase in the twentieth century Canadian national identity, a phase of industrialisation, a phase of taming the great rugged wilderness.

Despite the idolisation of the landscape expressed in these works, they were nonetheless aiding in colonial expansion, and dependent on an industrial system that strove to utilise and consume the natural splendour they depict. It is through this lens that Jackson’s representations of the Great Bear Lake region of the Northwest Territories can be accepted, not only as representations of a place, but as images that tied the landscape traditions of the Group of Seven to images of industrial development, effectively normalising the colonisation of the north.

In keeping with Group of Seven tradition, Jackson’s images were often uninhabited. His images marrying industry and wilderness justified colonial expansion—after all, an unpeopled land cannot argue against imperial domination. While Jackson’s landscape paintings can be read as “devices of colonial legitimation” (Bordo 229), his Port Radium scenes are unique in their representation of industrialisation in the very unpeopled wilds condemned by anti-colonial critics. As Jackson’s industrial scenes of mining on Great Bear Lake were combined with the rugged frontier and the terra nullius of other Group of Seven paintings, Port Radium was represented not as a destructive industrial project but as a natural progression, a harmless addition to the land that would improve it and make it more civilised and habitable. Read in this light, the Port Radium paintings depict the mines as wilderness, radium extraction as landscape.

They “naturalise industry as part of the northern scenery.” (Gray-Cosgrove) An example of this is the lighting in Radium Mine, Great Bear Lake. Oil tanks and snow reflect the same bright white; building front and grassy hills glow in the radiant light of the setting sun; trees and utility pole stand shadowed tall and straight. Jackson’s treatment of the scene leaves the viewer thinking that Port Radium is simply a part of the land, two natural aspects of a wild northern Canada.

In the wake of World War I, the work of the Group of Seven became a natural symbol of a uniquely Canadian visual identity. This national culture and identity was created through landscape painting that depicted Canada’s rugged, natural terrain through the use of bold colour, strong lines, and a focus on the horizon. Heeded as rising from the land, the work of the Group of Seven was regarded as authentically Canadian and served as a way to separate the emerging nation from it’s colonising empire. As a way of presenting the land as a place of pure and uninhabited possibility, the Group of Seven created images of a country whose indigenous peoples were on the edge of extinction and therefore excluded from these visual representations of national identity. By definition, the colonial gaze includes, “the dehumanization of colonial subjects”. The early part of the 20th century saw the Group of Seven exert the colonial gaze through the exclusion, and in some cases, the blending of indigenous people into the landscape itself. By doing so, they effectively labeled the indigenous peoples of Canada the same way they did the land; as raw, untamed, and free to be conquered.

Works Cited

  1. Ashcroft, Bill, et al. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. Routledge, 2002.
  2. Bell, G. “Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven Inches.” Métis Ramblings, 2012, metisramblings.blogspot.com/2012/02/tom-thomson-and-group-of-seven-inches.html.
  3. Bordo, Jonathan. “Picture and Witness at the Site of the Wilderness.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 26, no. 2, 2000, pp. 224–247. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1344122.
  4. Dawn, Leslie Allan. “How Canada Stole the Idea of Native Art: the Group of Seven and Images of the Indian in the 1920’s.” University of British Columbia, 2001.
  5. Frye, Northrop. “Selections from The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1971).” Greening the Maple, 1971, pp. 3–12., doi:10.2307/j.ctv6gqtcc.5.
  6. Gomez, Elizabeth. “Voice and Identity in Contemporary Canadian Art: Perspectives on Vocality and Representation.” McGill, 2009.
  7. Gray-Cosgrove, Carmella. “Picturing Uranium, Producing Art: A.Y. Jackson’s Port Radium Collection.” Active History, 2 May 2013, activehistory.ca/2013/05/a-y-jacksons-radium-mine/.
  8. McTavish, Lianne. ‘Beyond the Margins: Re-Framing Canadian Art History.’ Acadiensis [Online], 30.1 (2000): 104. Web. 28 Apr. 2019
  9. Nakamura, Naohiro. “The Representation of First Nations Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.” International Journal of Canadian Studies, no. 45-46, 2012, p. 417., doi:10.7202/1009913ar.
  10. Nelson, Robert S., and Margaret Rose. Olin. Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  11. O’Brian, John. “Wild Art History.” Beyond Wilderness: the Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017, p. 21.
  12. Phillips, Ruth B. “Making Sense out/of the Visual: Aboriginal Presentations and Representations in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” Art History, vol. 27, no. 4, 2004, pp. 693–694., doi:10.1111/j.0141-6790.2004.444_6_6.x.
  13. Schama, Simon, and Crawford Logan. Landscape and Memory. Royal National Institute of the Blind, 2005.
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History of Canadian Visual Art. (2021, Jan 11). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/history-of-canadian-visual-art/


How did art start in Canada?
Traditionally, the story of artmaking in Canada begins with the Baroque church decorations of the early French settlers . It cherishes the scant surviving relics of European culture as it first bloomed in the Canadian wilderness.
What is Canadian art known for?
Sculpture and handicrafts have existed since Canada's earliest history, though it was only in the 20th century that museums and scholars began to take note of important works of art such as the stone carvings of the Inuit and the totem-pole carvings of the Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples.
What is the traditional art in Canada?
Traditional Indigenous art comes in many forms, from moose hair embroidery, painted caribou hide coats, and deer hide moccasins, to porcupine quillwork on birch bark, burden straps of twined hemp, intricate beadwork, and colourful paintings.
When did art start in Canada?
In the late 18th century , art in Lower Canada began to prosper due to a larger number of commissions from the public and Church construction.
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