The Group of Seven, also known as the Algonquin School, was a unity of landscape painters. It was founded in 1920 as an organization of self-proclaimed modern artists and disbanded in 1933. The painters of the Group of Seven depicted Canada's panoramas as a reflection of a romanticized notion of Canadian strength and independence. Their works feature bright colors, tactile paint handling, and simple yet dynamic forms.
The original members of the Group of Seven were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and F.H. Varley. Tom Thomson was a peer and a leading influence, but he passed away before the group was formed. All except Harris made their living as commercial artists. MacDonald, Lismer, Varley, Carmichael, Johnston, and Thomson worked together at Grip Ltd., a graphic design firm in Toronto. Harris, as heir to the agricultural implements manufacturer Massey-Harris Co. Ltd., was independently wealthy.
In 1926, after Frank Johnston's resignation, A.J. Casson was made a member. The Group realized they could hardly call themselves a national school of painters as long as they all lived in Toronto. They admitted Edwin Holgate of Montreal in 1930 and L.L. FitzGerald from Winnipeg in 1932. It gave the organization a broader geographic base.
When the Group of Seven came on the scene, Canada was finding its feet as a nation — politically, socially, and economically. In the realm of culture, however, it had not yet wrested its independence from Old World traditions. Canadian landscape art consisted primarily of anonymous views seen through the cloudy screen of European academia. The small community of Canadian art collectors had little interest in artistic innovation. In this atmosphere, a group of painters and commercial artists befriended each other in Toronto between 1911 and 1913. They were drawn together by a common sense of frustration with the conservative quality of most Canadian art. They would look at one another's paintings, share ideas, and discuss techniques.
Despite their emphasis on the need for a specifically "native" expression, the Group drew inspiration from French Post-Impressionists, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. The turning point in the Group's search for a style came in 1912 when MacDonald and Harris traveled to Buffalo to see an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian painting. The approach of the Scandinavians (simple areas of flat, bright color creating vivid landscape) struck them. The synthesis of the Northern subject with this new approach created the distinctive images that would become the hallmark of the Group of Seven.
The members of the group were romantic, with mystical leanings. They zealously presented themselves as Canada's first national school of painters. It provoked the ire of the artistic establishment, which hated their rhetoric even more than their paintings. From the start, the Group's exhibitions sparked controversy. (One review of their first exhibition compared the works to "the contents of 'a drunkard's stomach.'") If anything, it was this heated debate that kick-started their fame. The negative reviews and letters to the editors received creative and passionate responses from the painters and their supporters. The discussion was always directed to the importance of their work as the product of true nationalistic expression.
Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, always supported the Group. He began buying their paintings for the gallery's collection several years before the Group was officially formed. In 1924 and 1925, he made sure they were well represented in Canadian art shows at the prestigious Wembley exhibition in England. This enraged many members of the Royal Canadian Academy, who felt that the Group was given an unfair advantage. However, British press reports were so favorable that both Brown and the Group felt vindicated.
Other factors also contributed to their success. Several of the group were excellent teachers, writers, and speakers. They worked energetically with the National Gallery and with other groups to mount touring exhibitions that showcased their works. Shows were held in the United States, Great Britain, and Paris. Another factor in their favor was that the bright colors and bold patterning of their paintings were ideally suited to reproduction and mass distribution. The Group's influence steadily spread during the 1920s. However, by the time the group disbanded in 1933, it had become as conservative, as the art establishment overthrown by it.
The painters of the Group of Seven are among the most important Canadian artists of the early 20th century. Their influence is seen in artists as diverse as abstract painter Jack Bush, the Painters Eleven, and Scottish painter Peter Doig. Emily Carr, famous for her paintings of the wilderness and Indigenous culture of the Northwest Coast, was influenced by the Group, and particularly by Lawren Harris. He once declared to her, "You are one of us." However, she was never an official member.