Changing Impressions of Tom Thomson and his Art
Ages 16-18

MysteryQuest 36

Changing Impressions of Tom Thomson and his Art

Author: Judy Wearing

Editor: Ilan Danjoux, Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 16 to 18

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What did the painter Vincent Van Gogh, the writer Edgar Allan Poe, and the composer Amadeus Mozart have in common? For one, they were all great artists. But they also all died penniless and unappreciated. It was not until significant time had passed that their artistic contributions were considered of historical importance. On the other hand, some artists are very popular in their lifetime, and become less popular over the years.

Tom Thomson is one of Canada's most famous artists. Tragically, Thomson died young in 1917 while fishing in Algonquin Park, in northern Ontario. He was 39 years old and had only been painting the Canadian landscape, particularly in that region, for five years. Before that, he worked as a designer and illustrator. While painting in Algonquin, he earned money as a wilderness guide. In those days, Thomson might be offered ten dollars for a small painting. Over time, Thomson became a Canadian icon - a man who appreciated Canada's wilderness and communicated its beauty in a unique way. Recently, one of his paintings sold for over one million dollars at auction.

The mystery of Thomson's death has seemed to dominate people's impressions of him. But what about his talent as an artist? Was he always recognized and appreciated? Have people's impressions of Thomson and his contributions to Canadian art changed since his death? If so, how?

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Your challenge is to determine if, and how, impressions of Tom Thomson's character and his contributions as an artist have changed over time. To accomplish this task, you will need to learn more about Thomson's life and art. You will analyze various impressions of the man and of his artwork during two periods: around 1917 at the time of his death, and around 1977 on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Based on this, you will judge how impressions of Thomson the man and the artist have changed and remained constant over time, and of the changes which of these are the most significant

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STEP 1: Learn about Tom Thomson

Learn more about this famous artist by reading a brief biography in the Background section of Evidence in the Case. As you read, make mental notes of any words or phrases used to describe Thomson and his work. Look for comments that touch upon three questions:

  • What are the main areas of interest in the man and his work? What things do people mention when they talk about the man? For example, do they mention his mysterious death or his skill as an outdoorsman? When they talk about his art, is it about his own work or about the influence he has had on other artists?
  • What aspects do people describe most positively and what aspects do they describe most negatively? What aspects of his character and his artwork receive the favourable remarks (e.g., his love of nature)? the most negative remarks (e.g., his tragic death at a young age)?
  • When considering the reasons for his fame as an artist, do people attribute more importance to the man or to his artwork? What features about the man and his art seem to account for the reputation Thomson has acquired?

STEP 2: Consider evidence of people's impression in 1917

Your next task is to examine documents that span two time periods found in Evidence in the Case. Begin with the four documents that relate to impressions of Thomson around the time of his death in 1917:

Work on your own or with a partner to examine these documents for statements of people's impressions about Thomson the man (i.e., his character and life) and about his artistic contributions. Record relevant statements in the left-hand column of the activity sheet, Finding Evidence of Impressions. Indicate at the top of the sheet that these are impression from the 1917 time period. After recording relevant statements from all four documents, look for common elements in these impressions. In the right-hand column, organize your summary of the overall impressions in 1917 of the man and of his art around the three themes described in STEP 1.

STEP 3: Consider evidence of people's impression in 1977

One you have summarized your finding about the impressions of Thomson in 1917, you are ready to work on the four additional documents published around 1977 at the time of the 100th anniversary of his birth:

Repeat the process you followed for the previous set of documents. Working on your own or with a partner use a separate copy of the sheet, Finding Evidence of Impressions to record your findings. Indicate that this new sheet pertains to impressions around the 1977 time period. Record relevant statements from the documents in the left-hand column and summarize the overall impressions of the man and his art in the right-hand column.

STEP 4: Identify changing and continuing impressions

Once you have completed your analysis of documents from both time periods, you are ready to look for changes and similarities in people's impression of Thomson. Focus initially on the summaries you prepared for impressions of Thomson the man in 1917 and 1977. Compare your answers to each of the three themes for each time period. Which impressions seem to have changed and which seem to have remained fairly constant? Record changing and similar impressions of Thomson the man on the top half of the activity sheet, Analyzing Impressions. Repeat the procedure using your summaries of impressions of Thomson's artist contributions to identify changes and similarities between 1917 and 1977.

After you have made these comparisons, select the two most significant changes in people's impressions of Thomson - one relating to perceptions of his character and life, and the other concerning his artistic contributions. In making these decisions, think of changes that represent the biggest differences in the way people feel about the artist. Record and defend your conclusions in the bottom part of the activity sheet.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing Changing and Similar Impressions may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant evidence from the documents, and draw conclusions about changing and similar impressions of Thomson's character and contributions.

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Activity Sheet: Finding Evidence of Impressions

Activity Sheet: Analyzing Impressions

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Are impressions still changing?
What are more modern popular impressions of Tom Thomson? Has he become more famous since 1977? Find several recent reviews of his work and his character on the internet, and compare these with your findings from 1917 and 1977. In your opinion, what have been the most significant recent changes in people's impressions of this great Canadian artist?

Analyze a painting's appeal
Choose a Tom Thomson painting you like. Why you find it appealing? It is the use of pattern, shape, colour, contrast, or some other aspect? You will find images of his paintings on the Death on a Painted Lake site.

Imagine a different history
What if Tom Thomson had not died? Would the impressions of people such as his family and friends, the art world, and Canada's general public be as favourable?

  • MysteryQuest #34 asks the question: How much influence did the mysterious circumstances of Tom Thomson's death have on his fame?

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Background to the case

Web article: David Huff, Tom Thomson Biography, Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound, ON

Impressions of Tom Thomson around 1917

Letter: Margaret Thomson, August 2nd, 1917 [to Dr. James MacCallum]

Inscription: J.E.H. Macdonald, fall, 1917 [Tom Thomson memorial cairn]

Newspaper article: Some Pictures at the Art Gallery, Toronto Daily Star, March 11, 1916

Newspaper article: Tom Thomson's Body Found, Was Missing More than a Week, Owen Sound Sun, July 20th, 1917

Impressions of Tom Thomson around 1977

Interview: Mrs. Margaret Tweedale, Sept. 6th-Oct. 13th, 1973

Newspaper article: Thomson: myth dispelled, man emerges, Globe and Mail, Nov. 6, 1971

Magazine article: The Legend, The Canadian, Oct. 15, 1977

Magazine article: Reflections on the Passing of Tom Thomson, Canadian Camping Magazine, Winter 1972