Water in the Wilderness? Rethinking the Canadian Group of Seven

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This post introduces Isabelle Gapp’s recently published Journal of Canadian Studies article, “Water in the Wilderness: The Group of Seven and the Coastal Identity of Lake Superior.”

In December 2019, I defended my doctoral thesis on A Circumpolar Landscape: Art and Environment in Scandinavia and North America, 1896-1933. Here, I assessed the landscape paintings of the Canadian Group of Seven, Emily Carr, and their Scandinavian contemporaries through an ecocritical and latitudinal methodology. Given the geographical scope of my research, it unfortunately left little time to be comprehensive in the artwork I looked at. Fast forward a few months, and I found myself confined to my apartment in the south of Spain, at the onset of a global pandemic, desperate for an escape. I ended up returning to an argument that was inherent to my thesis, that of wilderness, and to an environment I longed to explore more.

For many, the Group of Seven were, and still are, representative of a Canadian national identity. In the exhibition, “A Like Vision”: The Group of Seven at 100 (2020-2022) staged at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection to commemorate the centenary of the Group of Seven’s first show, the Executive Director, Ian A.C. Dejardin stated:

“The Group of Seven not only translated what they saw into a vivid visual language of their own […] but through that language they taught us to appreciate the natural beauty of Canada in all its vast scale and variety. Many Canadians continue to see the country through the Group’s eyes.”

However, to “see” the Group of Seven’s paintings is to also ignore the vast social, cultural, and environmental histories that are found in the regions they sought to immortalise.

An exhibition image showing two oil paintings by Franklin Carmichael, one an industrial town, the other of islands and lakes. Nine drawings are also shown.
Exhibition image from “A Like Vision”: The Group of Seven at 100.

My primary focus was to address the wilderness narratives that so-often define a study of the Group of Seven’s landscapes. I wanted, instead, to draw attention to the fact that Lake Superior’s northern Canadian shoreline was anything but the desolate and barren landscape it was made out to be. Alongside a visual analysis of Lawren Harris’ North Shore, Lake Superior (1926) and Franklin Carmichael’s Pic Island, Lake Superior (1926), among others, I accounted for the prevailing fur trade, fishing, and lumber industries as well as the burgeoning tourism industry and erasure of Indigenous communities along Lake Superior’s coastline. Offering a coastal and ecological perspective on the Group of Seven’s paintings allowed me to delve into the exploitation and preservation of both the coastline and lake itself.

By drawing attention to the ecological complexities and environmental aesthetics of the Group of Seven’s Lake Superior paintings, I further situated their work within a broader, ecocritical framework. Rather than continuing to perpetuate the same national, mystical, and theosophical tropes, this paper probes the interdisciplinarity of landscape painting. I took this opportunity to critically evaluate how the natural sciences and environmental history might benefit art history and visual culture, shifting an art-science dichotomy. This push towards a multi-disciplinary study of landscape painting and visual culture is increasingly evident in a global, ecocritical art history (for example, Coughlin and Gephart, 2020; Gómez and Blackmore, 2021; and Kusserow, 2021). 

An image of five paintings by Lawren Harris on display in an exhibition room, including three paintings from the Arctic, and two from Lake Superior.
Exhibition image from Magnetic North. Imagining Canada in Painting 1910-1940.

An iteration of this paper was also presented as part of the Magnetic North. Imagining Canada in Painting 1910-1940 exhibition programme at the SCHIRN Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2021). Unlike the centennial celebration of the Group of Seven’s work at the McMichael, Magnetic North offered a counter-narrative to the idea of a mythical and national Canada. The show notably included Indigenous perspectives to confront a preoccupation with constructing national identities that actively erase First Nations, Métis, and Inuit histories and communities. More curatorial efforts such as this will help destabilise pre-existing narratives surrounding the Group of Seven’s work and Canadian art history more broadly.

In the case of my research, by considering the Group of Seven’s paintings from an ecocritical perspective, we might begin to recontextualise their works in line with contemporary climate change and recognise the people to whom these lands traditionally belong.

Feature Image: The West Wind, 1917, by Tom Thomson, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

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Isabelle Gapp is an Interdisciplinary Fellow in the Department of Art History at the University of Aberdeen. Her research and teaching considers the intersections between nineteenth and twentieth century landscape painting, gender, environmental history, and climate change across the Circumpolar North.

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