Artwork by Arthur Lismer,  Autumn in Algonquin (1914)

Arthur Lismer
Autumn in Algonquin (1914)

oil on panel
signed lower right
8.5 x 10.5 ins ( 21.6 x 26.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $30,000.00$20,000.00 - $30,000.00

Price Realized $180,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

McCready Gallery, Toronto
Aquired by the present Private Collection, 1980
Possibly “Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition,” Halifax, 8‒16 September 1915, no. 90 as “The Little Maple” at $20
“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. 71
“Retrospective Exhibition Arthur Lismer (1885-1969)”, Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, Montreal, 6‒20 September 1997, no. 1
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015‒25 September 2016, reproduced page 96
Dr. James MacCallum fonds, Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Marjorie Lismer Bridges, “A Border of Beauty: Arthur Lismer’s Pen and Pencil”, Toronto, 1977, pages 15-18
Lois Darroch, “Bright Land: A Warm Look at Arthur Lismer”, Toronto, 1981, reproduced page 27
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 71, page 3, reproduced page 66
Charles C. Hill, ‘Tom Thomson Painter’, and Joan Murray, ‘Tom Thomson’s Letters’, in “Tom Thomson”, Toronto/Ottawa/Vancouver, 2002, pages 126-127, 298-300
In January 1914 Tom Thomson and A.Y. Jackson moved into a joint studio in the newly constructed Studio Building. As Jackson later reminisced, Thomson “was cheerful company and loved to talk of his life up north, while I would tell him of my experiences in Europe.” Enthused by Thomson’s stories, Jackson travelled to Algonquin Park for the first time in February 1914 (temperature 45 degrees below zero). Fellow artists J.E.H. MacDonald and J.W. Beatty arrived in March and Arthur Lismer in May. 1914 was the Algonquin year that bonded the artists in a new movement.

Algonquin Park was a revelation to Lismer, who wrote an account of his first visit. “I reached Canoe Lake … about ten o’clock in the evening, after a stuffy 9 hours in the train. I was met by Thomson who had brought down the wagon & we drove through the bush to where he was staying - imagine a glorious full moon coming over the tops of the spruce, big and yellow, shedding a mysterious light on everything - the air had a tang of freshness & cold that was wonderfully invigorating & refreshing after the stuffy train & the city I had left. One smelt the trees and the fragrance of the ground beneath, & the moonlight had colour you could see to paint…. This was the background and setting as it were to a wonderful chorus of sounds, the night chorus of nature’s orchestra - the wind in the pines, the shrill cry of the loons, the never ending piping of innumerable frogs and toads, rising and falling in rhythmic cadence, the low of the bittern, the hooting of owls.” After loading their supplies, they canoed through Smoke, Ragged, Wolf and Crown lakes. “The days that followed were full of enjoyment, of new experiences & discoveries. We made excursions in all directions into corners and little lakes where no one has been before, we made long excursions into the bush which, in early spring, is penetrable at places for the undergrowth is not so dense and tangled. … Down at the water’s edge grow the spruce, cedar, pine, with a few birch, then behind come the hardwoods, maple mostly… The contrast & beauty was intensified when the green came & it all seemed to happen in a night, the greys, purples & browns were the thousand million buds awaiting the sunshine & they all seemed to burst at once into glorious leafage - there were miles of birch lands, a glorious display of spring greens & silvery trunks reflecting perfectly in the lake. I can hardly describe Spring in the maple bush than one of the wonders of God’s creation, the tall sombre trunks purply grey & delicate branches interwoven in a marvellous intricacy of pattern, each little twig alive with dancing buds, some scarlet, some brown, & yellow.…”

Jackson spent the summer painting in the Rockies for the Canadian Northern Railway but
arranged to meet up with Thomson in the fall. From Winnipeg on his way back he wrote to
Dr. MacCallum: “A letter from the disappearing Thomson found me here. He is at Canoe
Lake stirring up his red paint for the fray so I am thinking of going by train from Port
Arthur to Parry Sound…. There are lots of maples round there so we ought to keep
ourselves busy and can get away from the war news.” In the first week of October they
were joined by Arthur Lismer, his wife Esther and daughter Marjorie, and Fred and
Maud Varley. Soon the reds of the maples had disappeared. On 6 October Thomson wrote
to Dr. MacCallum, “Jackson & myself have been making quite a few sketches lately. I will
send a bunch down with Lismer when he goes back. He & Varley are greatly taken with the
look of things here, just now the maples are about all stripped of leaves … but the birches
are very rich in color.” And on 11 October, Lismer wrote to MacCallum, “We have had a
glorious week of colour. The glory of it has somewhat departed now after the heavy rain of
yesterday & today which has left big, windy skies & promise of cold clear weather, a
pleasant change after the warm almost sultry weather we have had. The wind has stripped
the trees however & the maples are bare. … I am finding it far from easy to express the riot
of fall colour & still keep the landscape in a high key.”

The foliage and rich autumn colour, so different from Lismer’s experience in the spring, were a constant preoccupation of the artists. Red is the principal element of Jackson’s oil sketch “Red Maple” (McMichael Canadian Art Collection) and Lismer’s “Autumn in Algonquin Park”. In Jackson’s sketch, the few remaining red leaves are splayed in front of the dark rushing water while Lismer’s tree stands front and foremost, reflecting its autumnal glory in the water. Energized by the rapid brush strokes and dabs of pink and orange, the autumn foliage bursts out between the greens of the adjacent fir trees. Touches of the oncoming yellows flutter across the panel.

As the artists wrote, the red foliage disappeared quickly. Lismer’s sketch of Lowry Dickson’s cabin, “The Guide’s Home”(National Gallery of Canada, acc. no. 6520), possibly painted merely days later, is radically different. In contrast to the energetic richness of the earlier sketch, the birches are partially denuded of their foliage. The white trunks and yellow leaves are the dominant motifs, partially concealing the camouflaged hut, the ostensible subject of the study. Painted within such a confined time frame, the two sketches demonstrate the artist’s immediate and varying responses to the colours and forms of the Algonquin autumn.

We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada and author of “The Group of Seven – Art for a Nation”, for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Arthur Lismer
(1885 - 1969) Group of Seven, Canadian Group of Painters, OSA, RCA

Born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, the son of a draper and one of six children, he was the only one in the family who wanted to become an artist. At the age of nine, he was continually sketching and making cartoons. His father took an interest in his work and carries his sketches under his coat to the shop to show his fellow employees. When Arthur was old enough he attended the Sheffield Central High School, and at the age of thirteen won a scholarship to study nights at the Sheffield School of Art. During the day, he served his apprenticeship (seven years) in the printing business. When he was fifteen he took the post as illustrator for the “Sheffield Independent” in addition to his schooling and apprenticeship.

At the Sheffield School of Art he found the instruction almost dull and wanted to experiment more freely, but nevertheless he was receiving a thorough grounding in basic fundamentals of drawing, design, and general knowledge of the visual arts. His job as illustrator took him to meetings and events to sketch people like George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, and may others. When he was only sixteen, Lismer became secretary to the Heeley Art Club. Its membership was made up of cutler's engravers who spent the weekends roaming the moors in search of subjects to sketch. In the evenings they would adjourn to the local pub to philosophize. Their association continued for another nine years.

Lismer completed his apprenticeship with the Eadon Engraving Company and also his scholarship course at the Sheffield School of Art with distinction. Of particular interest to him was the work of John Constable and he collected reproductions of Constable's paintings. In 1906 Lismer went to Antwerp on the invitation of a friend who was a professor in the Berlitz School of Languages. He stayed with him and his wife while attending the Academie des Beaux-Arts. He rented a small studio over a baker's shop where he worked on his painting. He remained in Antwerp for a year and a half (1906-7) while making trips to Paris and London. He visited the galleries and viewed the works of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Daubigny, Corot, and others. On his return to Sheffield following his studies he opened his own business of pictorial publicity and also took in an apprentice. He found it very hard to make ends meet but carried on for three years. Pictorial publicity did not come into its own for another ten years.

Near the end of this three year period Lismer's attentions were gradually turned to Canada. He received encouraging reports from William Broadhead who had gone out to Canada and found a job with the Grip Engraving Company, Hs interest intensified when several other men from Canadian engraving firms arrived in Sheffield in search of trained engravers. He was approached by a man named Grew (from Rolph-Clarke-Stone), then Fred Brigden and his father. After some hesitation he made his decision to go to Canada.

He left his young fiancée Esther Mawson behind until he settled in a new job. Sailing in the S.S. Corsican he arrived at Halifax an finally reached Toronto in January of 1911. There he was hired by David Smith and Company. The manager of this firm made conditions so intolerable for Lismer that one day he quit in the spot with great justification. The following day (20th Feb. 1911) he joined Grip. The manager of this firm, Albert Robson, was sympathetic ti his employees but also demanding. Lismer was introduced to his fellow employees including JEH MacDonald, Tom Thomson, Frank Johnston, and others. He renewed his acquaintance with William Broadhead and met his friend Tom MacLean.

It was Tom MacLean who invited Lister to the Arts and Letters Club. There the cultural spirit of Toronto flourished within its walls, while without, the city moves through its dreary routine unaware of the Club's existence. It was at the Club that Lismer met Lawren Harris and AY Jackson. The stage was now set for the exciting events which were to follow.

In 1912 Lismer had saved enough money to return to Sheffiels and marry Esther. They returned to Toronto and settled in a small house on Delaware Avenue. Lismer had been inspired by tales of Thomson and Broadhead after their canoe trip through many rivers and lakes ending along the Mississagi River and on to Bruce Mines where they boarded a ship for Midland. Lismer had listened keenly to their descriptions of sunsets, huge water falls, mountains, rapids, and soon longed to venture forth himself. He did his early sketching with Tom Thomson in and around Toronto. Each artist probably helped the other. Thomson's great feeling for the north country would help immensely Lismer's understanding of a land he wanted to know more about. Lismer's thorough training at the Sheffield School of Art and his further study and travel in Europe couples with an exceptional analytical faculty, probably made him an invaluable critic of Thomson's early paintings. Of course, Thomson was receiving advice from others in the Grip circle and in turn was imparting his deep feeling of the north country to them.

In 1912, Robson changes firms and went to Rous and Mann taking Carmichael, Johnston, Lismer, Varley and Thomson with him. In May 1913 Lismer's only child Marjorie was born, and within four months he received an invitation to spend part of September at Dr. MacCallum's summer home at Go Home Bay in the Georgian Bay area. MacCallum had become a patron of Canadian artists interested in painting open country, bushlands and lakes. The Lismers departed and soon arrives at Penetanguishene where they were picked up by an open speed boat. After putting up for the night because of stormy water they arrived the following day at MacCallum's Island to spend the next two weeks. It was here that he experiences for the frst time a spiritual awakening towards the Canadian landscape. He made a number of sketches.

In 1913 he has accepted an offer to teach summers in art for Ontario teachers under the directorship of G.A. Reid. The classes were held under the auspices of the Ontario College of Art. Money was scarce and it gave him reliable income. Equally important, it introduced him to a role which was to take up more of his time as the years went by.

In May of 1914 Lismer made his first visit to Algonquin Park in the company of Tom Thomson. They set up their main camp on Molly's Island in Smoke Lake and for three weeks they visited Ragged Lake, Wolf Lake, and Crown Lake, lived in a pup tent and travelled by canoe. Lismer made several sketches.

Lismer returned to Toronto to his job at Rous and Mann. But in the autumn of that same year, he was back in the Park with his wife and daughter. They joined forces with AY Jackson, Varley, and Thomson. On this memorable occasion a photograph was taken of Thomson, Jackson, Lismer, on one side of a picnic table; Varley, Mrs. Lismer and her baby daughter on the other. Mrs. Lismer and baby probably stayed at Mowat Lodge or might have returned to Toronto. Varley and Lismer camped at one site, Jackson and Thomson at another. Many sketches were made that fall from which important canvases were produced. Lismer painted “The Guide's Home” and Jackson “The Red Maple”; both paintings have been reproduced in many publications. “The Guide's home” was done in the French Impressionist technique reminiscent perhaps of Pissaro. It was sketched at the mouth of the Potter and Joe Creeks and was in fact the home of George Rowe and Larry Dickson.

When Lismer returned to Toronto, he did the large canvas which was then exhibited in the Royal Canadian Academy show and acquired by the National Gallery shortly afterwards. A fine reproduction of it appears in Peter Mellen's book. In March of 1915, Lismer visited Dr. MacCallum's Island and he also seemed to have continues to paint canvases based on his Algonquin trip, or a visit to Huntsville nearby. “Sumach and Maple, Huntsville” dated 1915 is reproduced in very good colour in Harper's “Painting in Canada/ A History”.

Lismer moved to St. John Street, Thornhill in September 1915 and lived next door to JEH MacDonald. During March of 1915 he visited Dr. MacCallum at Go Home Bay. In the fall the Doctor commissioned JEH MacDonald, Thomson and Lismer to paint decorative wall panels for the living room of the cottage. The wall space was measured and the artists went to work in the Studio Building that winter. In April of 1916 the panels (beaverboard) were installed as a birthday surprise for Mrs. MacCallum. Lismer's part included six panels “The Picnic”, “The Campers”, “The Ducks”, “The Sea Gulls”, “The Fishermen” and “The 'Skinny-Dip'”. AY Jackson completed the decorations in 1953 (all panels were given to the National Gallery of Canada in 1968 by the then-owners of the cottage, Mr. And Mrs. HR Jackman).

In the late summer of 1916 Lismer departed with his family to Halifax where he became principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design. During his stay of four years the school grew to about one hundred and fifty students which included some soldiers and sailors who were either waiting for overseas transport, or were on extended disembarkation leave. He also opened, for the first time, his Saturday morning art classes for high school and elementary school pupils. He gave art instruction as well to the handicapped. The Lismers settled in a house ten miles beyond the city limits of Halifax. Luckily he missed his train the morning of the Halifax explosion. But the shock of the explosion blew in the windows of their home. Although many schools were demolished, the Victoria School of Art was only moderately damaged but was still a scene of horror as bodies were brought in from the streets to be thawed out beside the large furnace in the school basement. Lismer found himself climbing over empty coffins to get to his office. On of his best students had been killed and others had suffered serious injuries. When he was not on relief work, he kept from being overcome by the tragic events by making sketches of the city for the “Canadian Courier” in Toronto.

After enquiring from The National Gallery, Lismer received a commission from the Canadian War Records in June of 1918, to paint the activities of the Canadian armed forces around Halifax. During this period he did several large canvases “The Olympic”, “Convoy in Bedford Basin”, “Halifax Harbour—Time of War”, several black chalk drawings, and about seventeen lithographs with scenes of ships and seaplanes. His large war paintings are bold in design through Lismer's play on the ships' camouflage.

He also did many drawings and paintings apart from his War Records commission. Perhaps of greater importance was his development of techniques in child art education. In July of 1919 he exhibited fifty-three canvases at the Victoria School of Art and Design. In August he moved back to Toronto with his family in preparation to take over his duties of vice principal of the Ontario College of Art, the job having been offered to him in April by GA Reid, principal. Before leaving Halifax, he had recommended to the board of the Victoria School of Art and Design the name of Elizabeth Nutt of Sheffield to take over in his place. This she did with great ability and forcefulness.

During this year, Lismer was elected Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy. The war had left its mark in Toronto, particularly at the Arts and Letters Club where some of the absentees had been killed, while others were still on duty and had not yet been released. Lismer purchased a house which his wife had chosen. He made the purchase despite the fact that there was little room for his studio. Buying the house at all was made possible by a cheque from the National Gallery of Canada for War Records work. Lismer found studio space with AY Jackson at the Studio Building and they continued to paint War Records until October when Lismer took up his duties at the Ontario College of Art.

In the spring of 1920 however, he joined Jackson, Harris, MacDonald and Dr. MacCallum on a trip to Algoma country. They travelled on the Algoma Central Railway in a special railway freight car fitted our with windows, lamps, bunks, stove, water-tank, sink and cupboards. Harris had made arrangements with the railroad on two previous trips for a special boxcar to the same region with Dr. McCallum, MacDonald and Frank Johnston in mid-September of 1918 and again in the fall of 1919 with Jackson, MacDonald and Johnston. The boxcar ACR 10557 was in effect a studio on wheels. Lismer returned to Algoma in the spring and autumn of 1921 and the spring of 1924 and 1925.

He also returned to Georgian Bay in 1920 with Varley and Dr. McCallum. It was then that he made his first sketch for his large canvas “A September Gale, Georgian Bay”. A larger study was made from the sketch (acquired by the NGC from Vincent Massey bequest, 1968) and finally the canvas itself which was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1926.

Lismer exhibited sixteen of his works in his First Group of Seven show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1920. In 1922 he completed “Isles of Spruce” purchased by the Hart House Committee of 1927-8. The sketch for this work was made at Sand Lake, Algoma, in 1921, and the final work in 1922. This painting is of a northern lake in complete calm with a cluster of spruce trees on a low rocky island casting a reflection on the water. The viewer feels not a living thing stirs under a blue sky with high floating clouds, giving a sense of isolation and silence which is perhaps broken by the sound of a distant crow or loon. The clear air is scented by the smell of spruce, pine, and the dry leaves of autumn. A reproduction of this work was made by Sampson-Matthews of Toronto, and in September, 1970, the Canadian Post Office Department issued a six cent stamp featuring this work to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Group of Seven.

Lismer did hundreds of sketches and drawings on his trips to Georgian Bay, Algoma, the Maritimes, and around Toronto. Through his deft caricatures we are given informal glimpses of Thomson, Harris, Jackson, and others as well as their critics. During these years he continued to teach at the Ontario College of Art but unable to implement all his teaching methods and concepts of discipline, he resigned as vice-principal of the College's summer school. The same year, he was offered and accepted the post of educational supervisor of the Art Gallery of Toronto. In this capacity he was able to implement ideas on child and adult art education which he had begun to develop in Halifax.

He was influenced in his work by the great Vienese teacher and artist, Franz Cizek. To Cizek great artists were men who preserves spiritual attributes from the world of the child. It was in 1927 that Lismer arranged for a large travelling exhibition of the Cizek children's drawings and paintings to be shown at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Also, he organized his Saturday morning classes through the co-operation of schools who submitted names of interested children. With an excellent group of teachers the classes were launched. Later the Art Centre for Children was initiated. His responsibilities also required him to give informal gallery talks to thousands of visitors, study groups and members of the Gallery; classes for teachers from public and private schools and the setting up of reading and reference room facilities. A loan system was also initiate for slides and films.

During the summers of 1927, 1928. 1929 and 1930 he sketched in the Gaspé Peninsula, Rocky Mountains, McGregor Bay (at Georgian Bay), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. From his Rocky Mountain trip, he did the canvas “Cathedral Mountain” which was acquired by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In March of 1932 under the auspices of the National Gallery of Canada, Lismer set out on a tour across Canada to deliver a number of lectures including “The Necessity of Art”, “Art Appreciation”, “Art in Canada”, “Education Through Art”, “Art and the Child” and “Canadian PaintingTo-day”. His tour was a great success. He also talked with informal luncheon groups and casual audiences. His wife accompanied him throughout the tour. In 1932 he was invited to the New Educational Fellowship conferences in France and England and South Africa in 1934; United States in 1935 and 1936; Australia and New Zealand in 1937. Also in 1936-7, at the request of the government, he lectured to teachers and established children's art classes in South Africa. At all these places during his free hours he invariably sketched. It was in South Africa that he used water colours extensively for the first time because they were more easily carried.

In 1938-9 be was a visiting professor at Teacher's College, Columbia University, where he taught four courses and devoted the balance of his time to visiting New York City schools and colleges. It was at these schools and colleges that he studies the conceptions of art education. These trips took him further afield to Milwaukee and Iowa also to Massachusetts and New Jersey. He spent long hours with Dr. Frank Keppel discussing his findings. It was Dr. Keppel who had made possible a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to support Lismer's Saturday classes and also for the Child Art Centre. His daughter Marjorie attended Columbia University at the same time, where she took a post graduate course in anthropology.

While at Columbia University, he accepted a post in Ottawa at the National Gallery. He arrived there to take up his new duties in October of 1939. The Plan was to set up a national art programme which had been originated by Eric Brown but shortly after Lismer's arrival Eric Brown died. The plan was never fully realized. But then the outbreak of the Second World War drastically reduced the activities of the Gallery. But Lismer gave lectures on Peter Brueghel, Goya, Daumier, Cezanne, Van Gogh and lectures based on his 1932 tour but enriched by his travelling and teaching experiences.

In 1940 he became Educational Supervisor for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In 1946 was elected full member of the Royal Canadian Academy. He became Assistant Professor of the Department of Fine Arts at McGill University in 1948. He received from Dalhousie University, NS, an Honourary Diploma of LLD (1941); McGill University, Honourary LLD (1963). A man of keen humour he once explained when he did his serious paintings as follows, “I spend six weeks in the wilds of British Columbia, where there's no telephone and not a child within 90 miles. I make enough sketches to keep me painting the rest of the year. I usually work when there are dishes to be done, so I've got in the habit of painting as fast as my wife can wash the dishes.”

For well over a decade Lismer and his wife spent about a month at Long Beach, B.C., using as his base Wickanninish Lodge. In later years he exhibited paintings at the Dominion Gallery, Mtl.; Laing Galleries, Tor. (1959); Galerie Agnes Lefort (1963); Galerie Martal, Mtl. (1965) and elsewhere. He was further honoured by a Canada Council Medal presented to him by the late George P. Vanier, Governor-General of Canada.

Lismer dies in 1969 at the age of eighty-three. He was survived by his wife, Esther and daughter Mrs. Philip Bridges of Ashton, Md., USA. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the National Gallery of Canada in May of 1969 and was organized by Pierre Theberge, assistant curator of Canadian Art.

Lismer is represented in most Canadian Public Collections including: National Gallery of Canada; Art Gallery of Ontario; Hart House; The McMichael Canadian Art Collection; Agnes Etherington Art Centre; London Public Library and Art Museum; Winnipeg Art Gallery; University of Saskatchewan; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Sir George Williams University; The New Brunswick Museum; Dalhousie Art Gallery; and in many private collections.

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