Tom Thompson- Jack Pine- one of his now famous paintings and an exciting change from the then prevalent European style of realistic-photo-like- landscapes

Tom Thomson- Jack Pine- one of his now famous paintings and an exciting change from the then-prevalent European style of realistic photo-like landscapes

The mysterious death of iconic painter Tom Thomson: murder? or not?

Though little known in the art world at the time of his death in 1917, Tom Thomson has since become possibly the most iconic of Canadian artists. His profound influence on the famous Group of Seven artists who followed soon after and indeed on all Canadian art, is widely recognized.

Tom Thomson (R) with Arthur Lismer, fishing in Algonquin Park. Lismer would later become a member of the famous Group of 7 painters. That group said Thomson’s work was an inspiration for their painting direction.
Tom Thomson (R) with Arthur Lismer, fishing on Canoe Lake Algonquin Park. May 1914. Lismer would later become a member of the famous Group of 7 painters. That group said Thomson’s work was an inspiration for their painting direction. ©  McMichael Canadian Art Collection archives

Perhaps because of this, his sudden death at the height of his talent and the swirl of stories around it, have only increased the mystery and rumours surrounding his alleged accidental drowning.

Gregory Klages (PhD) is a sessional instructor at the University of Guelph-Humber, and at York University, a freelance historian, and author of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson.

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Author Gregory Klages, shown in Algonquin Park 2008, investigates the known and the rumour of the long-standing mystery of Tom Thomson’s death.
Author Gregory Klages, shown in Algonquin Park 2008, investigates the mystery of Tom Thomson’s death. © supplied

Thomson came to painting a little late in life but his talent was almost instantly recognizable among other more experienced artists in his circle in Toronto.

He was among the very first to venture into and capture the emotional impact of the wilderness of Canada, and to lead a new movement of artists away from more rigid European styles.

Just as his style was becoming developed, he suddenly drowned, unwitnessed, on a remote lake in Algonquin park.

But how could an avid outdoorsman, experienced canoeist, swimmer, and fisherman fall from his canoe on a calm day and on a lake he knew well?

Thomson- Pine Trees at Sunset-stylistic representation and vivid colours
Thomson- Pine Trees at Sunset-stylistic representation and vivid colours

How could someone whose career was beginning to take off, commit suicide?

Thomson with fish at Canoe Lake, 1914
Thomson with fish at Canoe Lake, 1914 © Library and ARchives Canada PA-125406

And could jealous lovers, or recalcitrant debtors, or arguments about the war, lead to murder?

The new book that seeks to if not resolve, clear away much of the rumour and inuendo surrounding the mysterious death on a remote lake of one of Canada’s now iconic artist. The book is published by Canada’s Dundurn Press
The new book that seeks to if not resolve, clear away much of the rumour and inuendo surrounding the mysterious death on a remote lake of one of Canada’s now iconic artist. The book is published by Canada’s Dundurn Press © DUndurn Press

Indeed rumours began to circulate that it wasn’t an accident, that he had instead met with foul play. The rumours and innuendo and pointed fingers continued and grew decade after decade.

Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, Ontario. showing the area where Thomson’s body was found July 1917 and where a century of rumour, myth, innuendo, and veiled accusations of foul play began.
Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, Ontario. showing the area where Thomson’s body was found July 1917 and where a century of rumour, myth, innuendo, and veiled accusations of foul play began. © G. Klages

As we approach the 100th anniversary of Thomson’s tragic and mysterious death, Gregory Klages looks at the actual evidence and strips away rumour to try to determine what really happened on that overcast day in July 1917.

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One comment on “The mysterious death of iconic painter Tom Thomson: murder? or not?
  1. Shane McPherson says:

    I helped construct and played in Jim Betts’ The Colours in the Storm in the 90’s and have been obsessed with the mystery of Thomson’s death since. ( I played Lawrie Dixon.) Totally enjoying this new book!
    I believe Thomson was murdered and I feel that new analysis on the skull found in the Canoe Lake burying ground and the plot in Owen Sound should be re examined.