September 13, 2010

A Visit to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

In the 1950's, the village of Kleinburg, Ontario, was little more than a pinpoint on the map just to the north and west of Toronto. Today, thanks to the passion and foresight of Robert and Signe McMichael, Kleinburg is known far and wide as the home of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection - the spiritual home of the renowned Group of Seven.

Let's begin at the beginning. In the early part of the twentieth century, a group of artists began working together in an effort to forge a Canadian painting identity using the nation's unique and magnificent landscape as an inspiration. It was, in their eyes, time to break away from their European roots and create a school or movement that reflected the reality of the new country and its intrepid inhabitants.

Tom Thompson "The Jack Pine", 1917

The "godfather" of this group was Tom Thompson, an outdoorsman at heart who recorded his observations of nature in his brilliantly colored paintings. It was his connection to and influence on other similarly minded painters that resulted in the formation of the Group of Seven - a name that eventually became a misnomer as the group expanded to ten! Sadly, Tom Thompson died in a canoeing accident before the Group of Seven was officially founded, but his vision was their guide throughout their existence.

Lawren Harris "Mount Robson", c. 1929

In 1920 the seven artists comprised Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston, Franklyn Carmichael and A.Y. Jackson. Their first exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto was an immediate success and confirmed their commitment to exploring and depicting their native environs. Over the next few years the group incorporated three more official members, A.J. Casson, Edwin Holgate and L.L. FitzGerald, and is also credited with influencing contemporaries - most notably Emily Carr. By 1931 the Group of Seven had given its last show - they disbanded and continued to pursue their art on individual basis' but their impact on Canadian Art did not wane.

Now let's skip ahead twenty years when art collectors Robert and Signe McMichael purchased a tract of land in Kleinburg and built a large log cabin which they named "Tapawingo", or "Place of Joy". Here they displayed their beautiful paintings surrounded by the nature which inspired them. Not just patrons of the Group of Seven, the McMichaels took personal interest in the well-being of the surviving members. In fact, A.Y. Jackson spent his last years with them and is buried on the grounds along with five of his colleagues in the McMichael Cemetery.

A.Y. Jackson "Maple and Birches", 1915

Both the acreage of the property and the square footage of the home were expanded over the years as their collection grew and the number of art lovers who made the trek to visit them increased exponentially. Eventually, in 1965, the McMichaels donated the land, their home and its contents to the Province of Ontario which maintains the compound to this day as a museum and cultural center dedicated to the promotion of the Canadian identity through art. Today, visitors can enjoy walks through the woods, a look at Tom Thompson's very primitive painting cabin (moved there from its original location), temporary exhibitions focusing on Native arts and artists, and most of all, the installation of the McMichael's own personal collection of the Group of Seven within the log walls of their home.

The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is open 364 days a year for the pure pleasure of viewing these magnificent works of Canadian art.

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