Artwork by Alfred Joseph Casson,  Thunderstorm (1933)

A.J. Casson
Thunderstorm (1933)

oil on canvas
signed lower right; signed and titled on the artist’s label on the stretcher
30 x 36 ins ( 76.2 x 91.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $400,000.00$300,000.00 - $400,000.00

Price Realized $480,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

Collection of the Artist
Laing Galleries, Toronto
Framing Gallery, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, May 1965
“Canadian Group of Painters”, Art Gallery of Toronto, November 1933, no. 12
“Canadian Group of Painters”, Art Association of Montreal, 1–21 January 1934, no. 11
“Catalogue of the Arts”, Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, 23 August–7 September 1935, no. 212
“Retrospective Exhibition of Painting by Members of the Group of Seven 1919–1933”, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; travelling to Art Association of Montreal; Art Gallery of Toronto, 20 February–15 June 1936, no. 28
“Contemporary Art–Canada”, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939, no. 6
“A.J. Casson Retrospective”, Art Gallery of Windsor; travelling to Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 14 May–27 August 1978, no. 23
“Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988‒7 May 1989, no. 81
“A.J. Casson, An Artist’s Life”, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg; travelling to MacDonald Stewart Art Centre, Guelph; Art Gallery of Algoma, Sault Ste. Marie; West Parry Sound District Museum; Thunder Bay Art Gallery; Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery, 14 November 1998‒31 December 1999, no. 31
“Annual Group of Seven Dinner featuring the work of A.J. Casson”, The York Club, Toronto, 26 April 2000
“A.J. Casson: Behind the Scenes”, Varley Art Gallery, Markham, 2 April–14 May 2006
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015–25 September 2016
“Retrospective Exhibition of Painting by Members of the Group of Seven 1919‒1933”, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1936, no. 28, unpaginated, reproduced
Paul Duval, “A.J. Casson”, Toronto, 1951, listed page 63, reproduced page 40
Paul Duval, “A.J. Casson”, Roberts Gallery, Toronto, 1975, page 73
Paul Duval, “A.J. Casson, His Life & Works/A Tribute”, Toronto, 1980, unpaginated, reproduced
Joan Murray and Kenneth Saltmarche, “A.J. Casson Retrospective”, Windsor, 1978, no. 23, page 9
Christopher Jackson, “A.J. Casson, An Artist’s Life”, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, 1998, no. 31, reproduced page 33
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 81, page 74, reproduced page 75, no. 81
Ian Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, reproduced page 193
“Thunderstorm” is a significant oil painting from early in the long artistic career of A.J. Casson, youngest member of the Group of Seven. It contains most of the elements that would come to characterize his oeuvre: the image of a rural Ontario town of bygone days; a strong design quality; and a distinct mood conveyed through colour and lighting, which taken together set him apart from other Group members. Having completed “Thunderstorm” probably during the summer or fall of 1933, Casson submitted it to the first exhibition of the newly formed Canadian Group of Painters that November, the Canadian National Exhibition in 1935, and the Retrospective exhibition of painting by members of the Group of Seven, 1919-1933, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and shown in Ottawa and Toronto in 1936. In 1939, Lawren Harris (then living in Santa Fe) included the work in the Canadian section of the contemporary art exhibition at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. It was purchased by the current owners in 1965.

Alfred Joseph Casson lived most of his life in Toronto where he was born in 1898. His first experience of small town Ontario was in childhood; he would make frequent visits to Meadowvale, a village west of Toronto, where he had family ties. Here, and later in Guelph, he developed a taste for rural life. After studying in Toronto with artists J.W. Beatty and Harry Britton, Casson began an apprenticeship in the commercial art firm of Rous and Mann under Franklin Carmichael in 1919. Carmichael, a member of the Group of Seven from its inception in 1920, was an important influence on the younger Casson, taking him on sketching trips and introducing him to other Group members. It was Carmichael who invited Casson to join the Group of Seven in 1926 to replace Frank Johnston who had left in 1922. Around this time, Casson began to explore Ontario in a newly purchased car, sketching and painting the rural towns. He later explained that this subject matter had given him the distinct identity he sought within the Group, as did his penchant for painting in watercolour. His legacy, he believed, was a body of work that recorded for posterity the rapidly disappearing rural towns of Ontario, just as A.Y. Jackson had done in Québec.

Villages like Elora and Salem (drawings of which would become the subject of a large, limited-edition book in 1979), Uxbridge, Parry Sound, Magnetawan were among the many places he depicted in the 1920s and 1930s. Working full time at a commercial art firm until 1959, Casson could go further afield to paint and sketch only on weekends and holidays. The location of “Thunderstorm” is unnamed. It is probably, as Paul Duval has suggested, an amalgam of different towns and villages, the parts selected from a range of drawings to create the desired effect. In this case, the graphite drawing inscribed “Sketch for Thunderstorm” (lot 120) clearly drew on an earlier watercolour sketch, “Stormy Sky”, circa 1927 (Ottawa Art Gallery, Firestone Collection of Canadian Art). The buildings on the extreme right and left of the sketch, which made their way into the final painting, were lifted from the watercolour. Casson undoubtedly referred to other sketches to fill the centre of the composition.

Graphite sketches of the period made “in situ” are typically spartan line drawings which, considering Casson’s aim to preserve the past, faithfully capture the details of the local architecture. The town and buildings are often identified. This sketch is different, serving another purpose. It is rapidly executed, with attention to detail being less important than the overall effect which is achieved through the fall of light and shadow on the generalized forms. Ruled lines indicate the perimeters of the finished work. The sketch demonstrates Casson’s working method and how he used his repertory of rural buildings in his creative work.

In the final composition, Casson made a number of changes to the sketch for greater dramatic effect. The visual field has been widened slightly, and the façade of the central structure flopped and shifted to the left. The artist also moved the red brick house and rotated it slightly to reveal more of the side in perspective (now reimagined as the front elevation), thus increasing the area of shadow, framed by two telephone poles. The result is a more unified composition, with the two main buildings relating more closely to one another. The repetition of steeply-pitched gables zig-zagging across the picture plane heightens the drama and reinforces the unsettled atmosphere that prevails.

Colour plays an important part in creating this effect while serving to unify the picture. Blue dominates the colour palette, adding weight to the ominous storm clouds which appear to be propped up by telephone poles like a Surrealist motif connecting earth and sky. In addition, blue shadows modify local colour, and natural forms—trees and grass— have been outlined in blue. There is an otherworldly quality to the scene.

Comparing canvas and sketch also reveals that Casson removed many details: the decorative fretwork under the eaves of the red house, the fence that ran along its side, the cross arms of telephone poles and the small figure heading up the road. This simplification demonstrates the influence that Group members, particularly Lawren Harris, had on Casson’s approach during this period. In 1928, Casson had accompanied Carmichael, Harris and A.Y. Jackson on a sketching trip to Lake Superior. Harris’s advice to Casson to eliminate the non- essential from his paintings was exemplified by Harris’s own spartan Lake Superior paintings of the 1920s, which Casson greatly admired. (Casson also admired Harris’s earlier house pictures.) The strong design quality of Casson’s work was undoubtedly the result of working as a commercial artist alongside Frank Carmichael. Casson later commented that the influence of the Group waned after 1933 when he began charting his own course.

“Thunderstorm” still bears the influence of the Group of Seven. The storm was a favourite subject of Group members. Like Harris and Carmichael, Casson typically filled his skies with expressive cloud formations which might take up the entire upper register, and appear to have as much substance as the land forms below, sometimes echoing them. In “Thunderstorm”, dark clouds, some stacked like plates resembling a supercell, disgorge columns of heavy rain. Casson’s keen interest in patterning, played to the full in his architectural subjects, extended to the entire composition. In 1945, Casson began his abstract phase using thinner paint (no texture) and reducing forms to an even greater extent. “Country Store”, 1945 (Art Gallery of Ontario), with its increased geometricization and flattened planes of colour is a good example of this new style which the artist would modify over time.

It is easy to see how a work like “Thunderstorm” could evolve into a personal form of abstraction. Lawren Harris’s Arctic pictures had informed his move to abstraction in the mid-1930s, but unlike Harris, Casson never entirely relinquished his connection to nature. By 1945, the influence of the Group of Seven on Casson’s work had waned, but he would always be associated with them, becoming an important resource for their history later in his life.

We extend our thanks to Christine Boyanoski, independent art historian and curator of Canadian art, for her assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Alfred Joseph Casson
(1898 - 1992) Group of Seven, PRCA, OSA, CSPW

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