Tom Thomson, Conservative Hero?

Tom Thomson is one of Canada’s most beloved artists. His painting style inspired his equally talented colleagues within the Group of Seven. His magnificent Northern landscapes on display in various venues, including Kleinburg’s McMichael Art Gallery and Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, have made him a national treasure. His mysterious death at Canoe Lake in July 1917 continues to intrigue art historians and amateur sleuths alike.

For my part, I’ve had a long fascination with Thomson’s art. While I prefer the Old Masters, with a special emphasis on the Baroque and Renaissance periods, Thomson’s paintings have always intrigued me. No matter how many times I see them, the broad brushstrokes, vibrant colours and exciting subject matter stand out. It sounds strange, but I could spend hours – days, even – observing his masterpieces, and regret the very moment I leave their presence.

I’ve also spent time thinking about Thomson’s role as a public figure, had his life not been cut so short. Would he have become a celebrity, or remained a private person? Would he have been made a full-fledged member of the Group of Seven? Would he have painted great portraits, or taken some international excursions? And the most pressing question of all: Whom would he have voted for in a federal election?

Ah, that probably caught your attention! Naturally, I can’t answer these questions – especially the last one. I have no idea whether Thomson supported a political party, ever voted, or even cared about politics.1

That being said, I believe Thomson was most likely a conservative. In his era, he would have been more closely aligned with Burkean or Disraelian values.2 Today, he would be classified as a paleoconservative (who tends to support traditional values, limited government, civil society, anti-federalism and a foreign policy platform that largely promotes isolationist strategies) rather than a neoconservative (who tends to support free markets, trade liberalization, a limited welfare state and a foreign policy platform strongly favouring democratic institutions, individual rights and freedoms, and nation building). From a Canadian perspective, he would have been a left-leaning Red Tory more at home in the old Progressive Conservatives as opposed to the current Conservative government.

By taking a closer look at his life and art, a strong case can be made that Thomson is the art world’s worst nightmare: a radical on the right.

Thomson was born in 1877 in Claremont, Ontario. As Joan Murray described in The Best of Tom Thomson, he was “eccentric, indolent, a filler-of-time.” He loved to read and to go fishing. Thomson had little interest in either financial security or emotional stability – he “wasn’t the marrying kind,” noted one ex-girlfriend. He shared an Isolationist Right – and New Left – position on the military because, according to Murray, he “hated the First World War.”3 According to Neil J. Lehto in Algonquin Elegy, Thomson was “a creature of depression and ecstatic moments …. Today, they would say he suffered from bipolar disorder or manic depression.”

Yet, this unconventional painter exhibited remarkably conservative-minded principles in his body of work. Roy MacGregor, in his book Northern Light, correctly observed, “Thomson was more the artist’s version of the ‘I-may-not-know-art-but-I-know-what-I-like’ school of thought on painting.” Unlike some artists, Thomson was not well rounded in different styles and techniques. He was mostly self-taught, although it’s believed he took some lessons in Toronto in 1906 from British painter William Cruikshank. And he preferred to march to the beat of his own drummer as an artist when it came to subject matter and inspiration.

Thomson’s patron, J.M. McCallum, provided a vivid personal description of the painter’s attitude towards art in a March 1918 article in The Canadian Magazine:

Thomson had but one method of expressing himself, and that one was by means of paint. He did not discuss theories of art, technical methods not choice of motives. He never told about marvelous scenes, of how they had thrilled and held him. He merely showed the sketches and said never a word of his difficulties or of what he had tried to express. His idea seemed to be that the way to learn to paint was to paint.

Are all of these positions conservative? Very much so, if you take into account the prevailing political viewpoints in Canadian arts and culture. In one sense, Thomson can be seen as a radical conservative spirit challenging the perceived left-wing orthodoxy of art’s meaning and value. Meanwhile, he disregarded the liberal art world’s definition of art as the final word – and proved there was a whole other world to discover and record on canvas. In many ways, it reminds me of a passage from Edmund Burke’s A Letter to a Noble Lord (1795), “Reform is not a change in the substance or in the primary modification of the object, but a direct application of a remedy to the grievance complained of.”

The location of the bulk of Thomson’s paintings has a conservative feel to it, too. In The Tom Thomson Mystery, author William T. Little points out that Thomson’s “great love was Algonquin Park … he began to guide tourists on fishing trips into the Park’s interior so that he could support himself for longer periods of time in the country he loved to paint.” The rugged terrain of the Algonquin, plus his love and passion for nature, was the inspiration for many landscape paintings. According to MacGregor, Thomson even “became a bit of a financial windfall for Mowat Lodge, as he continually persuaded fellow artists to come to Canoe Lake to paint,” including A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer.

On the surface, Thomson’s interest in Northern Ontario is closer to the mindset of a Green Party supporter. Yet conservatives have developed a healthy respect for nature, and Man’s place in the environment. As Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Nature is the art of God.” Many conservatives have also expressed admiration for the farmer-author Wendell Berry, a strong supporter of the agrarian movement, the environment and rural communities. While it’s true that this fascination can have a financial component (private sector solutions for green issues) and/or a political element (consequences of the urban-rural split, traditional family values), many conservatives respect northern communities and all they have to offer.

As well, Thomson’s paintings, although European Impressionist (or Expressionist) in style, contained more realistic images than anything produced by the Group of Seven.4 For example, in the period between 1911 and 1917, Thomson produced more than 200 works on trees. Joan Murray wrote in Tom Thomson: Trees that these studies “account for a large part of his work. They reflect the way he felt about the places he visited because wherever he went, he sought out trees to paint.”

Many of Thomson’s famous tree paintings, including The Jack Pine (1916-1917), Twisted Maple (The Red Tree) (1914), Pine Island, Georgian Bay (1914-1915), and Snow Shadows (1916), are clear, crisp images. They are trees, and unmistakably so. Sure, there are moments of artistic licence in some of the brighter red hues on the branches, and unusual greens and yellows in the skies. But even the Old Masters were prone to the occasional brushstroke that didn’t quite fit in or a person’s face (sometimes in the guise of a self-portrait) that didn’t belong in a historical or religious scene.

As a rule of thumb, it’s profoundly conservative to enjoy art like Thomson’s that looks like real – rather than a mess of scribbles and paint that’s impossible to interpret with the naked eye. There is also some recognition that artists and art observers don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. In conservative academic Richard M. Weaver’s 1961 Modern Age essay, “The Importance of Cultural Freedom,” he argued,

The principle is simple: an artist cannot be bound to present only images of the innocuous. If he is a profound artist, he may be presenting of what the majority will like a generation hence, for what the artist sees and what the generality of men see are at times two different things.

This is not to say some conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals don’t prefer modern art. They do. But in my experience, right-leaning art lovers are more likely to settle down in front of a Baroque painting by Diego Velázquez instead of an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning.

I recognize that giving Thomson a political label is a controversial decision. Historical left-right disputes over “ownership” of certain philosophers, economists and thinkers can drive a person to drink in record time. Yet we shouldn’t blindly accept a label for a particular group of people – in this case, artists – as being the only acceptable way to describe its members. The arts community comes in different shapes, sizes and yes, political leanings. Among them could very well be the most unlikely of conservative heroes.

END NOTES

1) For the record, I’m unaware of any material related to Thomson’s political views.

2) A quick Primer: Edmund Burke was an 18th century political philosopher, author and founder of classical conservatism. In contrast, Benjamin Disraeli was a 19th century classical conservative thinker and Britain’s prime minister on two separate occasions.

3) Many conservatives supported WWI. Alas, the Old Right and paleoconservatives, unlike their modern neoconservative counterparts, have gradually slid into the anti-war camp. With respect to Thomson, there are conflicting views about his position on WWI, and whether he wanted to join the fight, but it appears he was opposed to it.

4) In fairness, some of A.Y. Jackson’s, Arthur Lismer’s, and F.H. Varley’s work with the Group of Seven also belongs in this category.

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