Artwork by Tom Thomson,  Petawawa Gorges

Tom Thomson
Petawawa Gorges

oil on panel
Estate stamp lower right; Estate stamp and inscribed with title, dated “1916” and “M. Thomson” on the reverse
8.25 x 10.5 ins ( 21 x 26.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $1,500,000.00$1,000,000.00 - $1,500,000.00

Price Realized $2,220,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

Estate of the Artist
Elizabeth Thomson Harkness, Annan and Owen Sound
Margaret Thomson Tweedale, Toronto
Ralph Thomson, Seattle, Washington
Ruth Wilkins, Renton, Washington
Acquired by the present Private Collection, circa 1972
“The Tom Thomson Memorial Exhibition,” Tom Thomson Memorial Gallery, Owen Sound, 4 May‒1 June 1977, no. 32
“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. 54
“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
Harold Town and David P. Silcox, “Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm”, Toronto, 1977, page 232, reproduced page 131
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 54, reproduced page 57
Charles C. Hill, ‘Tom Thomson Painter’, in “Tom Thomson”, Toronto/ Ottawa/Vancouver, 2002, pages 125, 137‒138, 266‒268, 350
Joan Murray, ‘Tom Thomson’s Letters’, and ‘Chronology’, in “Tom Thomson”, Toronto/Ottawa/Vancouver, 2002, pages 298‒299, 302‒303, 312‒313, 317
David P. Silcox, “The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson”, Toronto, 2003, page 212, reproduced page 226
Joan Murray, “A Treasury of Tom Thomson”, Vancouver, 2011, pages 106‒111
Ian Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, page 203, reproduced page 137 and on the cover
Joan Murray, “Tom Thomson Catalogue Raisonné” (2016): inventory number 1916.100 (accessed on 16 July 2022)
David Silcox and Harold Town, “Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm”, Toronto, 2017, page 250, reproduced page 119
Of the many regions of Canada painted by the artists associated with the Group of Seven, Algonquin Park remains most intimately associated with Tom Thomson. Thomson first painted in the park in May 1912 and returned there every year until his premature death in 1917. Over the years he explored most regions of the park, first painting on the Petawawa River in the north-east corner in the early spring of 1914. A sketch and a canvas were the results (National Gallery of Canada, accession numbers 4683 and 4723).

Frequently impecunious, Thomson had to find other employment to be able to paint. In May 1916 he took on a job as fire ranger following the Booth Lumber Company’s drives down the Petawawa River. From Achray he wrote to J.E.H. MacDonald, “We have had no fires so far. This is a great place for sketching, one part of the river (South Branch Petawawa) runs between Walls of Rock about 300 feet straight up.” He descended the south branch of the Petawawa (now the Barron River) to Lake Traverse and from Basin Depot on 4 October he wrote to Dr. MacCallum in Toronto, “The Country up here is just taking the fall colour and by the end of the week will be at its best.... Have done very little sketching this summer as I find the two jobs don’t fit in. ... there’s no place for a sketch outfit when your fireranging.” (sic)

Unique in Thomson’s production is the group of seven sketches of the Petawawa Gorges, identified as the Barron Canyon. Two are in the National Gallery (Joan Murray, Tom Thomson catalogue raisonné, nos. 1916.97 and 1916.99), one in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (no. 1916.98), two in the Thomson collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) (nos. 1916.94 & 1916.96), one in the permanent collection of the AGO (no. 1916.95), and the work presented here (no. 1916.100). There appears to have been no other occasion when Thomson painted multiple views of the same site. Possibly fire ranging prevented him from moving around as much as he normally did and, having to remain stationary, the dramatic subject offered multiple interpretations in varying lights. As Joan Murray has beautifully written, “Clearly the pieces Thomson painted in the gorges are memorials to a unique site. He picked up visual elements of the landscape and mixed and arranged them depending on the time of day and qualities of light, like variations on musical themes.”

The National Gallery sketch “Petawawa Gorges, Night” (acc. no. 15548) is painted with broken brushwork, similar to the treatment Thomson employed in the canvas “The Pointers” (Hart House, University of Toronto) painted the following winter. Yet no canvas resulted from these Petawawa studies, though J.E.H. MacDonald wrote on the back of the AGO sketch (no. 1916.95) “Tom considered this sketch his best & intended it as a large picture.”

In this study, and in four others (nos. 1916.96, 1916.97, 1916.98 & 1916.99), Thomson has depicted the cliffs rising from the water, framing the narrow gorge. He must have painted them seated in his canoe in the middle of the river, though the viewpoints are not identical. In some a hill is visible beyond the gorge. Except for the night scene, the sun consistently comes from the right illuminating the left cliff while the right one is cast in shadow. In “Petawawa Gorges” Thomson has used broken brushwork to depict the light on the foreground water and sky but the cliffs and rocks and trees lower right are broadly painted. White trunks and foliage rise from the promontory at the left. This is an outstanding work among this remarkable group of Algonquin sketches and was selected for reproduction on the cover of the collectors’ exhibition, “Embracing Canada” in 2015.

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 contributing the preceding essay.

This artwork has been scheduled to be included in the upcoming touring exhibition “Tom Thomson: North Star”, which will be presented at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection beginning in July 2023.
Tom Thomson’s ”Petawawa Gorges” (1916) doubled the low-end estimate, selling for $2.22 million to excited audience applause on December 1st, 2022. The painting was part of the artist’s family’s collection for over fifty years before being acquired by these private collectors in 1972. Other versions of this composition are in major public collections across Canada.

This painting and “Evening, Pine Island” by Tom Thomson, both offered in the Live Auction of An Important Private Collection of Canadian Art, are two of the top five paintings by the artist to meet the top end of the estimate at auction.

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Tom Thomson
(1877 - 1917)

Tom Thomson was born near Claremont, Ontario and grew up in Leith, near Owen Sound. After moving to Toronto, his early career was spent as a commercial artist at Grip Ltd., the commercial design firm where he first met MacDonald, Harris, Jackson, Lismer and others. By 1911, Thomson was making regular sketching trips to areas north of Toronto and, in 1912, he made the first of many trips to Algonquin Park.

As well as being an artist, Tom Thomson was an avid outdoorsman and Algonquin Park soon became his favourite place to paint. His enthusiasm for its quiet, untouched landscape with its changing moods and bright fall colours inspired other artists to explore the region. After 1914, Tom Thomson spent most of his time painting in Algonquin, except during the coldest winter months. It was during this period that he produced the bulk of his paintings of this rugged northern landscape. Thomson's brief, but prolific, career as an artist came to a premature end when he drowned in Canoe Lake in 1917, just three years before the Group of Seven held their first exhibition. His artistic achievement was to remain an inspirational force to other Group members.