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 By the time the group officially formed in 1920, their style was already outdated in Europe, but readers of this book will be reminded of their tremendous achievements, which provide a timeless reflection of our country’s magnificent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.
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"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
"In Defiant Spirits
gets at much more than what the Group of Seven painted; he discloses who the men were and brings them to life." (Eye Weekly
'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
'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
"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
] 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
, 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
"With Defiant Spirits
, 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
"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
'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
's book does an excellent job of exploring the roles of these visionary individuals in the shaping of an artistic cultural identity." (Publishers Weekly
"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