Artwork by Alfred Joseph Casson,  Northern Valley

A.J. Casson
Northern Valley

oil on board
signed lower right; dated 1946 and inscribed “Small Picture O.S.A. Simpsons” on the reverse; titled on a label on the reverse
18 x 21.5 ins ( 45.7 x 54.6 cms )

Auction Estimate: $120,000.00$90,000.00 - $120,000.00

Price Realized $120,000.00
Sale date: June 15th 2022

Private Collection, Calgary
“Small Pictures Exhibition”, Ontario Society of Artists, 1946
‘A.J. Casson: The Last of the Group of Seven’, “CBC Radio Canada”, October 28, 1986, accessed April 23, 2022
Paul Duval, “A.J. Casson”, Roberts Gallery, Toronto, 1975, page 89
A.J. Casson was introduced to the Group of Seven by his boss at Rous & Mann Ltd. and fellow Group member, Franklin Carmichael. Carmichael served as a mentor in the early years and took Casson to the Arts and Letters Club, where he was a regular at the Group’s ‘Artists’ Table’. It was an association considered unorthodox by more conservative painters of the time. Casson replaced Franz Johnston in the Group, who had left Toronto in 1921 to become the principal at the Winnipeg School of Art. Casson was made an official member in 1926, however he had participated in the Group sketching trips for years prior. He was the youngest member of the Group of Seven and these trips formed the basis of his arts education having never formally attended art school. According to the artist, “I was a bit of a chore boy. I didn’t mind that...well, if we were away camping...I know once we were camping away up north. One day it was pouring rain and sleet and Harris said, ‘my mother is sending some supplies up on the train today’. It was a four-mile walk down the tracks to the station. They didn’t say it, but I was it! Put my slicker on and went down. When I got there there were 4 loaves of bread, 2 green cabbages, and 2 baskets of grapes.”

Though it may seem odd now, the Group of Seven did not meet with favourable reviews upon its inception. According to Dennis Reid, the Group was more ignored than hated, but by the time Casson joined they had become well established artists. However, that did not stop some critics from loudly voicing their disdain for the Group’s work, including one critic who stated that, “[i]f these paintings were allowed to continue they would discourage immigration to Canada.”

Casson remembers the art market in Canada gathering steam in the 1950s and “taking off” in the 1960s. In 1968 the Roberts Gallery in Toronto held a show of Casson’s work. Patrons lined up for hours. Once the doors opened the crowds rushed in and began ripping the pictures from the walls. Three years of Casson’s paintings sold in 15 minutes. Painting on weekends and evenings, Casson was a part-time painter and full-time commercial artist. Casson remarked, “I didn’t think I’d ever be a professional artist till I was 60. I’d made my living doing good commercial work, but I never thought I’d be a full-time painter.”

Casson was known for painting the rural countryside and villages of northern Ontario. He accompanied fellow Group of Seven member, A.Y. Jackson, on several sketching trips to Quebec in the 1920s, but saw that territory as Jackson’s special painting grounds. Casson explained, “You don’t understand. A young person and admiring what they did so much. The influence was too strong. Jackson - for years - begged me to go down to Quebec with him. Well, I was afraid if I went I would just paint poor Jacksons. So instead of that I started scouting the Ontario villages and doing them.”

Casson wanted to define a territory for himself and settled on the sleepy villages of southern Ontario that he was familiar with from his childhood. However, the two painters shared a love of farmhouses. Paul Duval explained, “[l]ike the American painter Edward Hopper, Casson manages to imbue his rural structures with deeply human overtones.” In “Northern Valley” the central farmhouse, nestled among the unforgiving rocks of the Canadian Shield, gives the impression of being shuttered and empty. The house seems lonely as it awaits its inhabitants.

In “Northern Valley”, A.J. Casson adds interest to the artwork by painting the farmhouses in the foreground in shadow against a bright background. Casson was known for adding unusual elements in his compositions, which he developed over his years as a graphic designer for well-respected Toronto firms, such as Sampson Matthews Limited and the aforementioned Rous & Mann Ltd. Casson often included weather effects in his paintings and here we see the changing light captured with dramatic effect as the clouds gather, warning of an impending rainstorm.

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Alfred Joseph Casson
(1898 - 1992) Group of Seven, Canadian Group of Painters, PRCA, OSA, CSPWC

Born in Toronto, Ontario, he started art studies at Ryerson School and later under John S. Gordon at the Hamilton Technical School when his family moved to Hamilton. His family moved back to Toronto in 1916 and he worked free lance and studied evenings at the Ontario College of Art, the Toronto Central Technical School under Alfred Howell, and classes under Harry Britton who first taught him watercolour techniques and introduced him to oil painting.

When the young A.J. Casson first took a position as design assistant to Franklin Carmichael at the firm of Rous and Mann, he could not have known the remarkable direction his career would take. The demanding but affable Carmichael became a friend, mentor and sketching companion. In fact, it was Carmichael who introduced Alfred Casson to members of the Group of Seven at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club. The dedicated artist began to exhibit with the Group and became a natural successor to Frank Johnston when he left to pursue other interests.

He exhibited for the first time with the Ontario Society of Artists in 1921, and in 1923 his canvas “Clearing” was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada. Casson , Carmichael and F. H. Brigden formed the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour in 1925 “to encourage and foster the art of watercolour in Canada.” F. B. Housser wrote in the Year Book of Arts in Canada “Carmichael and Casson are painting in watercolours … giving to Canadian landscape a statement in watercolour as bold and untraditional as that which some of their associates have given it in oils.”

Most of Casson’s large canvases were done between 1926 and 1930 when he found his subject matter in the Haliburton Region and Lake Superior areas. It was about 1924 that Casson became interested in the Ontario village. He made many pencilled sketches of structural details which became a valuable reference for his larger studies in oils like “Anglican Church at Magnetawan” completed in 1933 and purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1936. In his depiction of the more settled areas of southern Ontario, A.J. Casson was deliberately seeking out subject matter that set his work apart from the preferred material of other Group of Seven members. Alfred Casson’s strong design background shaped a unique painting style, characterized by graceful lines and carefully considered compositions. With the passing of time his style underwent a subtle change in which pattern became an essential element in his work.

In addition to his dedication to excellence in his own work, A.J. Casson was instrumental in the formation of important Canadian art organizations such as the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, the Canadian Group of Painters and the WWII War Artists Program. Vice President and Art Director for Sampson-Matthews Ltd. for almost 20 years, he was responsible for the technical development of programs in connection with reproduction of artists’ works carried out by the National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Pulp and Paper Association and Sampson-Matthews Limited. He did heraldic work which was reproduced by Sampson-Matthews Ltd. including armorial bearings of Canada and a series of landscapes.

There can be no doubt that over a long career, which spanned much of the twentieth century, Alfred Joseph Casson left an indelible mark on the Canadian art landscape.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume I: A-F", compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1977

  • 1898   Alfred Joseph Casson born in Toronto
  • 1912   Studies at Hamilton Technical School under John S. Gordon
  • 1913   Apprenticeship at the Laidlaw Lithography Company in Hamilton, Ont.
  • 1914   Apprenticeship at Commercial Engravers Company
  • 1915   Freelance designer
  • 1915-1917   Studies at Toronto Central Technical College under Alfred Howell
  • 1918-1921   Studies at the Ontario College of Art under J.W. Beatty
  • 1919-1926   Assistant Designer to Franklin Carmichael at the design firm of Rous and Mann Ltd. 
  • 1920   Carmichael introduces Casson to Group of Seven members at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club
  • 1921   Exhibits for the first time with the Ontario Society of Artists;  accompanies Carmichael on an extended painting trip to Rosseau Lake in the Muskoka district
  • 1922   Exhibits for the first time with the Group of Seven
  • 1923   “Clearing”, is purchased by the National Gallery of Canada; becomes a member of the Ontario Society of Artists
  • 1925   Founding member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour together with Franklin Carmichael and F.H. Brigden
  • 1926   Becomes a member of the Group of Seven upon the departure of Frank Johnston;  accompanies Franklin Carmichael to the design firm of Sampson-Matthews;  becomes an associate member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts;  buys a car and begins to explore the small villages and hamlets of Southern Ontario
  • 1926-1930   Sketches in the regions of Haliburton and Lake Superior
  • 1928   Sketching trip to Lake Superior with A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris and Franklin Carmichael
  • 1933   Co-founds the Canadian Group of Painters after the dissolution of the Group of Seven, following the death of J.E.H. MacDonald
  • 1936   Anglican Church at Magnetawan is purchased by the National Gallery of Canada
  • 1939   Becomes a full member of the RCA
  • 1939-1945  Appointed as a member of Canada’s War Records Committee;  helps to establish the WWII War Artists Program
  • 1940   Elected President of the Ontario Society of Artists
  • 1942   Appointed Art Director of Sampson-Matthews
  • 1946   Appointed Vice-President of Sampson-Matthews
  • 1949   Publishes “The Possibilities of Silk Screen Reproduction” in Canadian Art magazine
  • 1948   Elected President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts;  receives the Province of Ontario Award
  • 1954   Awarded the Gold Medal for Excellence in Canadian Advertising
  • 1955-1959   Appointed Vice-President of the Art Gallery of Ontario
  • 1957   Retires from Sampson-Matthews in order to pursue painting on a full-time basis;  awarded Gold Medal from the University of Alberta
  • 1967   Awarded Canada’s Silver Centennial Medal
  • 1970   Awarded the Royal Canadian Academy Medal; conferred with an Honourary LL.D. from the University of Western Ontario
  • 1971   Conferred with an Honourary Degree from the University of Saskatchewan
  • 1973   Becomes a Fellow of the Ontario College of Art; awarded the City of Toronto Award of Merit for distinguished public service
  • 1975   Conferred with an Honourary LL.D. from the University of Toronto
  • 1977   Awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal
  • 1979   Awarded the Order of Canada
  • 1980   Conferred with an D.F.A. from Mount Allison University
  • 1982   Conferred with an Honourary LL.D. from McMaster University
  • 1991   Awarded the Order of Ontario
  • 1992   Dies in Toronto at the age of 93