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  • Astrid Ahlgren

Painting the North: How Nordic art influenced Canadian painters

Harald Sohlberg, Vinternatt i Rondane, 1901

Members of the Canadian Nordic Society and guests were treated to a captivating visual presentation by Rita De Ruysscher, who is a docent at the National Gallery of Canada. Rita demonstrated how Scandinavian artists showed Canadians how to see their own land, inspired the Group of Seven (a group of Canadian landscape painters from 1920 to 1933) and other artists, and validated a distinctive style that came to be recognized as a Canadian national school of painting.

The Grip Co. of Toronto, a commercial art firm, was the workplace of many Canadian artists who were members of, or associated with, what was to become the Group of Seven. Many of these commercial artists belonged to the Arts and Letters Club, a private club in Toronto which still brings together writers, architects, musicians, painters and others working in the arts. They read the British magazine The Studio, in which was advertised “The Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art” to be held in Buffalo, New York in 1912-1913. The kings of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were patrons of the exhibition, which featured paintings by Swedes Gustav Fjoestad, Prince Eugen (fourth son of King Oscar of Sweden) and Otto Hesselbom; Norwegians Harald Sohlberg and Thorolf Holmboe; and one Dane, J.F. Willemsen. These artists had studied in Berlin and Dusseldorf, but upon returning home used their own northern motifs, colour and light, representing a departure from continental European art. To North Americans the paintings in the exhibition were indeed novel.

Cover of the Exhibition catalogue ~ !2 ~

Landscape by Norwegian artist Thorolf Holmboe

Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald attended the exhibition and were inspired by it. Over the ensuing decades their painting took the distinctive turn that has made icons of these artists and their colleagues. In her engaging illustrated talk, Rita De Ruysscher demonstrated how this process of influence and interpretation evolved. She did this by showing selected paintings of the Scandinavian artists side-by-side with the works of the Canadians known as the Canadian school. We saw how distinctive motifs, artistic devices and similar colour use appear in both.

For example, the snow-themed works of Lawren Harris, J.E.H.MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson and Tom Thomson compare very dramatically to those of Gustav Fjoestad. Similarly, the paintings of Tom Thomson and J.E.H MacDonald echo the motifs of water, silhouetted trees and sunset skies seen in that Swedish artist’s paintings. The iconic lone pine tree, which appears in paintings by Frederick Varley, Tom Thomson, Arthur Lismer and Franklin Carmichael, is reminiscent of paintings by Norwegian Thorolf Holmboe. When viewing the mountains in the paintings of Sohlberg and the mountains painted by Lawren Harris, the viewer is struck by the similarity and virility of the motifs and colour.

During the discussion that followed the talk, many in the audience made personal commitments to visit national galleries, at home and abroad. Rita’s fascinating talk had inspired them to look at northern art with a better appreciation of its antecedents.

Tom Thompson’s “The Jack Pine”

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