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Defiant Spirits [Paperback]

Ross King
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 15 2011
A Globe 100 Book of the Year for 2010 and shortlisted for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

A Governor General's Award-winning author recounts the turbulent years during which a group of young Canadian painters went from obscurity to international renown.

Beginning in 1912, Defiant Spirits traces the artistic development of Tom Thomson and the future members of the Group of Seven, Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley, over a dozen years in Canadian history. Working in an eclectic and sometimes controversial blend of modernist styles, they produced what an English critic celebrated in the 1920s as the "most vital group of paintings" of the 20th century. Inspired by Cezanne, Van Gogh and other modernist artists, they tried to interpret the Ontario landscape in light of the strategies of the international avant-garde. Based after 1914 in the purpose-built Studio Building for Canadian Art, the young artists embarked on what Lawren Harris called "an all-engrossing adventure": travelling north into the anadian Shield and forging a style of painting appropriate to what they regarded as the unique features of Canada's northern landscape.

Sumptuously illustrated, rigorously researched and drawn from archival documents and letters, Defiant Spirits constitutes a "group biography," reconstructing the men's aspirations, frustrations and achievements. It details not only the lives of Tom Thomson and the members of the Group of Seven but also the political and social history of Canada during a time when art exhibitions were venues for debates about Canadian national identity and cultural worth.

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

From a young age, Canadians learn about our country’s most famous painting movement in art classes, yet the Group of Seven’s dramatic landscapes and blazing depictions of Canada’s wilderness still don’t seem to get the respect they deserve.

Ross King, the best-selling author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and, more recently, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, redresses this imbalance by situating the group of artists within a larger historical context. His compellingly detailed account begins in 1912, as the painters were just meeting, and continues through the Great War, culminating with the group’s eventual disbanding in the 1930s. King’s elegant prose is a joy to read as he introduces each figure, giving the reader a rare glimpse into the lives of young men who were united by the desire to create a distinctly Canadian painting style at a time when critics, collectors, and the public were hostile toward the aspiring modernists.

The book opens with Tom Thomson and A.Y. Jackson, who met as young designers at Grip Painting and Publishing Co., en route to paint in Algonquin Park. The paintings of another co-worker, J.E.H. Macdonald, were noticed by Lawren Harris, scion of the wealthy Massey-Harris family, whose own artistic sensibility had been influenced by Edvard Munch and the Gruppe der Elf (Group of Eleven). Together, Harris and Macdonald established the Studio Building on Toronto’s Severn Street and recruited Thomson, Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, and a few others to join them.

The book follows these artists – then known as the Algonquin Park School – as they struggle to earn a living, aided by their patron, Dr. MacCallum, and National Gallery of Canada director Eric Brown. The Group also faced detractors, including the notably crabby Saturday Night assistant editor Hector Charlesworth, the painter Carl Ahrens, and even, in later years, Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

The heady relationships among the men – from Thomson as MacDonald’s protégé to Harris as the group’s de facto leader – emerge throughout the book, and King spends considerable time recounting each artist’s adventures during the First World War. By the time the group officially formed in 1920, their style was already outdated in Europe, but readers of this book will be reminded of their tremendous achievements, which provide a timeless reflection of our country’s magnificent landscape.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"It's to dispel the myth of [uncultured artists] that Ross King has risen to the challenge of writing yet another book on the gang. It is a real collective biography, focusing on the personalities of the painters, their influences and the swirling currents of nationalism, theosophy and Whitmanesque transcendentalism they were caught up in." (Toronto Star 2010-12-02)

"In Defiant Spirits, King gets at much more than what the Group of Seven painted; he discloses who the men were and brings them to life." (Eye Weekly 2010-12-01)

"Ross King's collective look at the Group of Seven not only paints vivid portraits of the individual artists, but it reaffirms their place in Canadian cultural history and offers a clearer understanding of what it was like to persist in artistic activity." (Globe & Mail 2010-11-27)

"Ross King's Defiant Spirits not only situates Tom Thompson, A.Y. Jackson, et al in their historical contexts, it also conveys their emerging artistic sensibilities and their desire to create an authentic Canadian art, even in the face of institutional hostility." (Quill & Quire 2010-11-23)

"If Ross King were a geologist, he'd have made millions striking untapped rivulets of gold or oil in overlooked places. Instead, as an art historian, he mines nuggets of obscure information that he forges into page-turners about Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Manet and, in this new book, the Group of Seven." (Montreal Gazette 2010-11-19)

"[Defiant Spirits] is a paradigm shift. With his usual spirited prose and faultless research, King makes internationalists out of the Group of Seven, showing them responding and reacting to the art of their day and the socio-political upheavals brought about by the First World War. These were ambitious artists and King never lets them settle into the comforts of cottage life and Canadiana." (Canadian Art 2010-10-01)

"King, an admirably industrious researcher and deft writer, already much admired for his books on the Renaissance, splendidly braids together the lives of eight painters, the seven members of the Group and Tom Thomson. His skill and intelligence make Defiant Spirits an essential addition to any library of Canadian art history." (National Post 2010-09-28)

"With Defiant Spirits, King, as in his other biographical art histories, takes on big subjects, big personalities and big events and weaves them into a concise, entertaining narrative. He is a master researcher and biographer and this book serves as an informative introduction to an important era in Canadian art history." (Telegraph Journal 2010-10-16)

"Biographer and historian King traces the roots of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven back to 1912, when their exposure to the works of Cezanne, van Gogh and other European modernist artists combined with their love of the Canadian wilderness to create a new and totally Canadian style." (Globe & Mail 2011-07-23)

"King's writing is characterized by clarity, compassion, and humanist intelligence...The personal, political, and aesthetic obstacles they encountered are described here with sympathy, so that we feel we've actually met these individuals -- the goal of any good biography." (Library Journal 2011-10-31)

"King's book does an excellent job of exploring the roles of these visionary individuals in the shaping of an artistic cultural identity." (Publishers Weekly 2011-12-10)

"King's book functions spectacularly, both as compelling biography and (more importantly) as internationally contextualized art history, and the thoroughness and quality of its research are sure to make it a standard reference work for students (of all stripes) of Thomson and the Group." (Canadian Literature 2013-09-26)

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love of Natural Landscape Nov. 6 2010
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
For someone like myself who has only a cursory knowledge of the modern Canadian art scene, reading King's "Defiant Spirits" offered me a great opportunity to journey into the past and discover a dynamic movement that continues to reshape our country's national image both at home and abroad. In this book, King very methodically and descriptively pieces together the story of how a number of landscape painters came together in the early part of the 20th century to develop a radically new concept of how Canadians might choose to see the land they called Canada. Based on a strong influence of impressionism and post-impressionism coming out of Europe in the late 19th century, these seven men and their many associates developed an interpretation of rural and urban Canada that was representative of many deep spiritual encounters with the natural, social and economic forces shaping this young nation. To assist his readers to come to grips with the emotive power of their expressive paintings, King takes them through the transformation that each painter like Jackson, Varley, Harris, Lismer, Johnston, and Thomson experienced on their road to creating a made-in-Canada art form. Along the way, there were many bumps and reversals that were only overcome by their ability to feed of each other and refine the signature product. Mixed in with the discussion of their personal lives is considerable reference to the famous technique of painting that embodied the innovative use of gaudy colors to unlock extraordinary sensations from a natural landscape. The two parts of the account that really hit home with me were the personal struggles and tragic death of Thomson and the war experiences of Jackson and Varley as they worked on the Western Front as war painters. Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent work of artistic merit June 26 2014
By Marvin
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book offers a more complete look at the lives and work of this famous group of Canadian painters. It goes well beyond the superficial information most Canadians have about these important artists, to "paint" a more complete picture. Well written and highly recommended to art lovers or historians.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific June 15 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a must for anyone interested in Canadian art. It tells the fascinating tale of the forming of the Group of Seven. Well written and engaging.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant - and so very Canadian Nov. 1 2013
Excellent book -- captures the "spirit" and stories behind the Group of Seven painters in a rich and colourful fashion. For those who enjoy history, Canadian art, or just a well-written non-fiction book, this is rare treat.

Wonderous stuff.

I also suggest the book, Picturing the Land: Narrating Territories in Canadian Landscape Art, 1500-1950
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brought them Group of Seven back to life July 3 2013
By J. Ng
I read the book out of passing curiosity over the Group of Seven and a touch of duty as an immigrant to Canada, but this book has amply rewarded me in every way. There's a whole bunch of research that's gone into it, but Ross King has made it approachable and fun even.
Lawren Harris has held my fascination for some time for his blue-and-white Arctic-themed pictures, and I was able to find out about his spring trip to Labrador. Also engaging was the backgrounder on WWI and A.Y. Jackson's sacrifice in it as contrasted with Tom Thomson, who got vilified by some for not enlisting, which King set as part of the backdrop for Thomson's possibly most famous last piece, the Jack Pine.
And all over the place, all these vignettes are so nicely placed, I'll just have to reread the book, this time in the right order. And then go visit the Group of Seven exhibit at the AGO with fresh eyes.
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