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The West Wind

Tom Thomson

The West Wind

Tom Thomson
  • Date: 1917
  • Style: Art Nouveau (Modern)
  • Genre: landscape
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Dimensions: 137.2 x 120.7 cm
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The West Wind is a painting by Canadian artist Tom Thomson. An iconic image, the pine at its centre has been described as growing "in the national ethos as our one and only tree in a country of trees". It was the artist's final painting, and according to some art historians was unfinished at the time of his sudden death by drowning in 1917.

Thomson based The West Wind on an earlier, slightly different sketch he produced in 1916 while working as a park ranger in Algonquin Park. In the finished canvas Thomson moved the pine further to the right, replaced a less defined foreground plane with strongly patterned rock shapes, and removed a dead tree limb from the ground. The location of the subject is uncertain; Thomson's friend Winifred Trainor believed the site represented was Cedar Lake, though Grand Lake, Algonquin Park has also been proposed as the setting. Some locals believe the location to be on Kawawaymog Lake.

As in his iconic The Jack Pine, Thomson began the painting with an undercoat of vermilion that he allowed to show through in various places to contrast with the greens, to lend the work a feeling of "vibration" and movement. The pine dominates the composition without obscuring the view into the distance, and is successful as both specific representation and abstract design.

Though not imposing in scale, it is a graceful arabesque decoration, "a magnified bonsai". Thomson's background in design lent his composition an art-nouveau sensibility, for example, "in the way a single tree stands silhouetted against water or the sky like a symbol of romantic solitude". An earlier reviewer noticed the same effect in it and The Jack Pine: "[these] two best-known canvases... are essentially Art Nouveau designs in the flat, the principal motif in each case being a tree drawn in great sinuous curves... Such pictures, are, however, saved from complete stylization by the use of uncompromisingly native subject-matter and of Canadian colours, the glowing colours of autumn."

According to Trainor, Thomson was not satisfied with the picture, fearing that the flat abstract shapes of the foreground rocks and trees were inconsistent with the atmospheric conception of the background. However, for Thomson's colleague Arthur Lismer, the trees in The West Wind were symbolic of the national character, models of resolve against the elements. Thomson biographer and curator Joan Murray, while initially disliking the painting, wrote that it "is a powerful canvas; resonating with its message of weather and wind, it expressed the divine as some of us imagine it in Canada. This is the sort of tree that would stand at the gates of heaven to open the doors of the kingdom."

The Canadian Club of Toronto donated The West Wind to the recently opened Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). Librarian George Locke, a club member, announced the donation in a speech, praising Thomson's accomplishments: "Thomson needs no tablet to commemorate his achievements ... He has left us work that expresses our national life – the forces of the great natural surroundings of this young land."

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