The Group of Seven: Seven Paintings by Canada’s Greats

Arthur Lismer - Olympic with Returned Soldiers.Canada's Group of Seven. Arthur Lismer - Olympic with Returned Soldiers. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Whether it’s the weathered majesty of towering trees or a firework-like flare of color that captures a sunset, nature has proven a powerful muse for many artistic movements over history. One of the most captivating is the Group of Seven, a collective of Canadian painters that bonded in the early 20th century over their love of landscape and produced an incredible body of work recognized today for its portrayal of some of the most picturesque views of the untamed Canadian countryside. This article takes a closer look at this fascinating network of Group of Seven artists by offering some of the group’s history and finest paintings.  

Origins of the Group of Seven

The emergence of the Group of Seven in 1920 stemmed from a parallel love of Canada’s untapped natural beauty and a desire to push against the trends of European modernism. The core members of the group – James Edward Hervey MacDonald, Frederick Varley, Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, Frank Johnston, Alexander Young Jackson, and Lawren Harris – actually initiated the conversation a decade prior, during informal gatherings at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. But it was in the aftermath of World War I that the collective refocused on the task of developing a unique approach to painting the Canadian landscape. Though their compositions varied, they united over several shared principles:

Capturing Nature’s Beauty

The Group of Seven painters aimed to celebrate the vast and diverse Canadian landscape, from rocky coastlines to deep woods that underscored the land’s natural beauty.

Marveling in Unspoiled Majesty

Beyond documenting the splendors of the Canadian wilderness, the Group of Seven also wanted to convey in their paintings the grandeur – and at times almost spiritual majesty – of these vistas. This sense, often palpable in their paintings, further reinforces the awe for these striking natural spaces that these painters held.

Experimenting with Dynamic Palettes

To further showcase this brilliance, many of the Group of Seven painters enlivened their palettes with electric hues reminiscent of early 20th-century Expressionism. These energized hues instilled a sense of nature’s vivacity.

Showcasing National Identity

The painters within the Group of Seven also sought to use their work to establish a uniquely Canadian art movement distinct from but equally as striking as their European contemporaries.

Key Group of Seven Paintings

A better sense of these themes can be illustrated in the paintings conjured by the Group of Seven artists. Here are some of their more significant works:

Alexander Young Jackson’s The Red Maple (1914-1915)

Canada's Group of Seven. Alexander Young Jackson - The Red Maple.

Alexander Young Jackson – The Red Maple. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Celebrating the striking color contrast that autumn provides, Jackson’s The Red Maple juxtaposes bright red maple leaves against the coursing, deep blue water of river rapids beyond. In doing so, Jackson created a contemplative work that reminds the viewer of the power and the beauty of untouched nature.  

James Edward Hervey MacDonald’s The Tangled Garden (1916)

Canada's Group of Seven. J.E.H. MacDonald - The Tangled Garden.

J.E.H. MacDonald – The Tangled Garden. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A simple yet scintillating scene of a garden patch in bloom comes alive in MacDonald’s The Tangled Garden. Using a revolutionary palette and introducing eclectic color combinations, MacDonald’s composition comes alive with luscious shades of green complemented by hot reds and delicate yellows.

Arthur Lismer’s Olympic with Returned Soldiers (1919)

Celebrating a troopship’s return to Halifax following the conclusion of World War I, Lismer’s painting Olympic with Returned Soldiers capitalizes on the striped camouflage of the ship’s hull to play with his palette. The topaz blue waters and cloud-filled sky showcase even more of Lismer’s acumen in creating compositions that come to life with visual energy. This painting also recalls that several of the artists associated with the Group of Seven served in the Canadian military during World War I as official war artists. 

Frank Johnston’s The Solemn Land (1921)

Canada's Group of Seven. Frank Johnston - The Solemn Land.

Frank Johnston – The Solemn Land. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of Johnston’s more panoramic works, The Solemn Land offers the viewer a sweeping vista complete with spindly pines and placid waters. Here too Johnston plays with color, from the fire-red tree accenting the foreground to the lime green that comprises patches on the rocky peaks in the distance.

Lawren Harris’s Island Off Greenland (1930)

Canada's Group of Seven. Lawren Harris’s Island Off Greenland

Lawren Harris – Island Off Greenland. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of a series of oil sketches that Harris executed while on a trip with Group of Seven colleague Alexander Young Jackson to the Arctic, Island off Greenland captures the isolation of these frozen climes. The seemingly endless, azure blue waves seem to break only for the icy, snow-covered crags of a mountainous island in the distance as if to convey the stoic, almost sublime grandeur of nature. This oil sketch also illustrates that the Group of Seven artists, though dedicated to the Canadian landscape, could skillfully apply the same brilliance to nature around the world. 

Franklin Carmichael’s Lone Lake (1929)

Canada's Group of Seven. Franklin Carmichael - Lone Lake.

Franklin Carmichael – Lone Lake. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Casting an aerial eye on the La Cloche region of Ontario, Carmichael’s Lone Lake comes to life in seductive shades of green and blue. The turquoise hues of the sequestered mountain lake perfectly contrast the jade greens that structure the surrounding mountains in a manner wholly characteristic of the Group of Seven. In this painting Carmichael worked in watercolor, a medium in which he specialized. Carmichael was so passionate about the medium that in 1925 he served as co-founder of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Color along with his friend (and colleague of the Group of Seven) Alfred Joseph Casson. 

Frederick Varley’s A Mountain Road Through Lynn Valley (1936)


Offering a view from his home’s window near British Columbia’s Lynn Peak, Varley’s painting A Mountain Road Through Lynn Valley showcases the artist’s ability to convey expansive bird’s eye views. In this painting, Varley provides a view of the entire valley, with the winding trail on its floor to the soaring mountain peaks in the distance. Though the palette here is more subdued than in earlier Group of Seven paintings, Varley still pulls us into the work by offering the addition of a solitary hiker trudging along the trail.

The Group of Seven’s Lasting Influence

The end came for the Group of Seven in 1933, but it was not due to lack of success. Rather, this network of artists had become so well-recognized and had reached so many artists that the cessation of the Group of Seven was to establish a new Canadian Group of Painters. This novel collective of almost thirty artists from across Canada pursued similar artistic aims to the original Group of Seven, with Lawren Harris serving as the Canadian Group’s first president. The importance of the Group of Seven can still be sensed today from artist’s studios to auction blocks where paintings by these artists continue to achieve new sales landmarks.