Group of Seven Exhibition

Seven Canadian artists joined to unveil their first exhibition of Canadian landscape art at the Art Gallery of Toronto, establishing a unique aesthetic for Canadian art.

Summary of Event

The group exhibition presented at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1920 accomplished two important goals: It introduced the Canadian group of artists known as the Group of Seven, and it initiated a new aesthetic with strong nationalist ties to Canada’s landscape and wilderness. The first members of the group were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank H. Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and F. H. Varley. The group’s membership varied over the years from 1920 through 1931 and included not only the original seven artists who exhibited their work in 1920 but also three other artists: Alfred Joseph Casson, LeMoine Fitzgerald, and Edwin Holgate. Group of Seven
[kw]Group of Seven Exhibition (May 7, 1920)
[kw]Exhibition, Group of Seven (May 7, 1920)
Group of Seven
[g]Canada;May 7, 1920: Group of Seven Exhibition[05110]
[c]Arts;May 7, 1920: Group of Seven Exhibition[05110]
Carmichael, Franklin
Harris, Lawren
Jackson, A. Y.
Johnston, Frank H.
Lismer, Arthur
MacDonald, J. E. H.
Varley, F. H.
Thomson, Tom
Casson, Alfred Joseph
Fitzgerald, LeMoine
Holgate, Edwin

The original group would have certainly included Tom Thomson, a colleague whose textured, colorful landscapes had a major influence on the group’s art and philosophy, had Thomson not unexpectedly died in a drowning accident on Canoe Lake in 1917. The tragedy of Thomson’s death and the World War I experiences of some group members who served as commissioned military artists created a sense of the transcendent and of the importance of communion with nature. Even after 1931, when the group held its last exhibition and disbanded, and after 1933, when some former members formed the Canadian Group of Painters, Canadian Group of Painters the Group of Seven had a major influence on the development of the Canadian art scene.

By the early 1900’s, Toronto had become Canada’s second largest city (after Montreal), and the country’s industrialization, manufacturing, mining, and other industries began to bring immigrants and technology to the region. As communities became larger and more industrialized, artists, writers, and philosophers noted that much of the world’s natural beauty was being surrendered to industry. In response, they developed a stronger enthusiasm for the wilderness, natural world, and rural settings.

The Group of Seven first met at Grip Limited, a commercial design company in Toronto. From 1908 through 1914, J. E. H. MacDonald, Tom Thomson, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael, and Frank Johnston all worked at the book and graphic design company and developed strong, supportive relationships. During their tenure there, Tom Thomson introduced the artists working at Grip to the Canadian wilderness, and this influence would form the basis for much of the artists’ work.

The artists’ supportive and collegial relationships continued as they began meeting at the Toronto Arts and Letters Club, a club for men interested in debating and discussing the arts and Canadian culture. It was here that the group developed their ideas about the unique nature of Canadian culture and aesthetics and about the best methods for cultivation of authentic Canadian art forms based on the power, spirituality, and majesty of the Arctic landscape. Prior to this time, Canadian artists largely followed the work of the master painters of Europe, and many believed that the bleak, rough Canadian landscape was unfit for portrayal. The Group of Seven disagreed, and they focused on fostering art based on the nationalistic conviction that Canada—and particularly the Canadian wilderness—was not only a fitting subject for great art but also met spiritual and artistic aspirations.

In the winter of 1920, the seven artists met to plan a group exhibition that would highlight their artistic similarities. Although the artists tended toward disparate styles and subjects, each shared beliefs in the need for a truly Canadian art and an emphasis on natural, wilderness-based settings. Before the group’s formation, the artists had worked as individuals to build their careers and participate in exhibitions, but their bold, colorful styles, the dimensions of their canvases, and the ordinary subjects chosen for their work met with criticism and skepticism. After the 1920 exhibition, however, positive reviews celebrated the show’s landscapes, street scenes, and portraits and heralded the advent of the Canadian spirit in painting.

Following the show, the members of the group began to exhibit their work outside Canada. Many members became substantially involved in education: Johnston taught at the Winnipeg School of Art, Carmichael began at the Ontario College of Art in 1932, Lismer taught at the Art Gallery of Toronto and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and MacDonald directed the Ontario College of Art. During the 1920’s, the group also invited other Canadian artists to exhibit with the original seven, and the influence of their aesthetic continued to expand as a result.

In 1931, the group held its eighth and final exhibition, which included work by group members as well as twenty-four other artists. The group’s subsequent dissolution was the result of several factors: By the time the last exhibition was held, several of the original members had left, and MacDonald’s poor health (and his death in 1932) was the source of particular difficulty. In addition, the Group of Seven wanted to broaden its scope to include new Canadian artists, and at the 1931 exhibition they announced the creation of a new and more inclusive group, the Canadian Group of Painters.


The Group of Seven helped to establish a uniquely Canadian aesthetic based on the beauty of the Canadian landscape. This break with the European artistic tradition prefigured the era of modern art in Canada and paralleled the development of nationalist art movements in the United States and Mexico. It should be noted that these artists were not the first to depict the Canadian landscape in art; indigenous peoples in Canada had been doing this for centuries. However, these were the first artists of European descent to build their artistic reputation on depicting the Canadian wilderness. Unfortunately, the artists were also notable for their unwillingness to consider women artists as equals, although later women artists were strongly influenced by their works. Eventually, Prudence Heward was invited to exhibit with the Group of Seven, and Emily Carr was made a charter member of the Canadian Group of Painters. This shortcoming did not, however, detract from the group’s influence and the inspiration it provided to Canadian artists and the country as a whole. Group of Seven

Further Reading

  • Hill, Charles C. The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1995. Written as a complement to a touring exhibition at the National Gallery, the illustrated volume provides a historical survey of the group’s work.
  • Murray, Joan. The Best of the Group of Seven. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. With an introductory essay by founding member Lawren Harris. Murray has compiled excellent color illustrations with a short introduction to the best of the group’s work.
  • _______. Northern Lights: Masterpieces of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1994. Murray has extensively written about the Group of Seven, including volumes about the artists’ work as individuals. She is also a leading scholar on Tom Thomson.
  • Silcox, David P. The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Toronto: Firefly Books, 2003. Excellent introduction to the paintings themselves and the style that ties the artists together. Includes four hundred color reproductions.
  • Wistow, David. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1982. Brief introduction to the painters, the history of the Group of Seven, and the paintings. Includes large, full-color reproductions of the paintings.

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