Your source for art news from the AGO and beyond.

Presented by Signature Partner

Happy Birthday times seven

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Group of Seven’s first exhibition at the AGO.

GO7 catalogue cover

Group of Seven Exhibition Catalogue, May 1920, Art Gallery of Toronto. Collection of the E.P. Taylor Library and Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario.

May 7, 1920, was a sunny and mild Friday. Anyone wishing to visit the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) would have paid twenty-five cents to enter. Inside they would see an exhibition by locally known artists, eager to propel their art and vision to the forefront. One hundred years later, we look back at this lasting moment in Canadian art.

In 1920, the Gallery was very much in its infancy; only the year before it had changed its name from Art Museum to Art Gallery, and its exhibition space was limited to just three galleries, referred to by their shape – octagon, square and long.

Across these three galleries, 121 works were arranged. The exhibition was titled simply The Group of Seven. The artists at the heart of this exhibit were based in Toronto; many of them colleagues at the design firm Grip Ltd., all members of the Arts & Letters Club and frequent exhibitors at the Ontario Society of Artists. Some had been war artists and some taught at OCAD University. But this was a first – their first expression of their shared purpose, their first articulation of a common vision. 

The exhibition was accompanied by a pamphlet, which could be purchased for ten cents. Elegantly designed, befitting a collective largely made up of commercial artists, the logo across the top was the creation of member Arthur Lismer.

Lismer sketch

Arthur Lismer. Sketches for Group of Seven Logo, 1920. charcoal on paper, Overall: 25.5 x 20.2 cm. Gift of Mrs. R.M. Tovell, 1953, transferred from the Edward P. Taylor Reference Library, September, 1983. © Art Gallery of Ontario 83/264.1-.2

Written by the Group’s de facto leader, Brantford, Ontario-born artist Lawren Harris, the double-sided pamphlet featured a lengthy foreword; it was both a vision statement and provocation in one, "The group of seven artists whose pictures are here exhibited have for several years held a like vision concerning Art in Canada," Harris wrote. “These images invite adverse criticism.”

GO7 pamphlet

Group of Seven Exhibition Catalogue, May 1920, Art Gallery of Toronto. Collection of the E.P. Taylor Library and Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Among the works exhibited by the founding members of the Group (Franklin CarmichaelLawren HarrisA.Y. JacksonFranz JohnstonArthur LismerJ.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley) were bold Algoma-inspired landscapes, portraits, urban scenes, garden views and works produced for Canadian War Memorials.

Franklin Carmichael. Autumn Hillside

Franklin Carmichael. Autumn Hillside, 1920. Oil on canvas, Overall: 76 x 91.4 cm. Gift from the J.S. McLean Collection, Toronto, 1969; donated by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1988. © Art Gallery of Ontario L69.16

Franklin Carmichael. Autumn Hillside
Arthur Lismer. Logging in Nova Scotia

Arthur Lismer. Logging in Nova Scotia, 1920. Oil on canvas, Overall: 91.4 x 101.5 cm (36 x 39 15/16 in.). The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 2017. © Estate of Arthur Lismer 2017/165

Arthur Lismer. Logging in Nova Scotia
Lawren S. Harris. Bess

Lawren S. Harris. Bess, 1920. Oil on canvas, Overall: 112.5 x 92.2 cm - Gift of L.S.H. Holdings Ltd., Vancouver, 1989. © Family of Lawren S. Harris 89/113

Lawren S. Harris. Bess
J.E.H. MacDonald. The Beaver Dam

J.E.H. MacDonald. The Beaver Dam, 1919. Oil on canvas, Overall: 81.6 x 86.7 cm. Gift from the Reuben and Kate Leonard Canadian Fund, 1926. © Art Gallery of Ontario 840

J.E.H. MacDonald. The Beaver Dam

In addition to featuring select works by the original founding members of the Group, three Montreal artists were also included in that initial exhibition. At the invitation of A.Y. Jackson, who saw the Group’s aim as being national in scope, Montreal painters R.S. Hinton, R. Pilot and Albert Robinson were included. Although they themselves would not join the Group, they would serve as leading members of the Canadian Group of Painters.

Approximately 2,000 visitors would pass through the Gallery doors during the exhibition’s twenty-day run. And although the Group would sell very few works – two by Carmichael to a private buyer and three to the National Gallery of Canada: Night, Georgian Bay (Jackson), Fire-swept, Algoma (Johnston) and Shacks (Harris) – the response from critics was loud and varied.

“Are these new Canadian painters crazy?” asked TheCanadian Courier, while the Toronto Star could only concede that “these seven painters show some excellent work.”

Toronto artistic circles were not surprised – J.E.H. MacDonald’s The Tangled Garden was raising eyebrows since its debut in 1916 when Hector Charlesworth accused the artist of throwing "...his paint pots in the face of the public." 

Nonetheless, they persisted, imagining in paint ancient lakes and woods, Arctic vistas and the magic of the northern lights. The Gallery remained one of their largest proponents, hosting eight exhibitions between1920 and 1931.

The Group would officially disband in 1933.

See more works from the AGO Collection, including Indigenous and Canadian art, through the AGO’s online Collection Search. Looking for more art news from the AGO and beyond? Stay tuned to the AGOinsider.

Be the first to find out about AGO exhibitions and events, get the behind-the-scenes scoop and book tickets before it’s too late.
You can unsubscribe at any time.