An Introduction To The Art Gallery of Ontario In 5 Paintings
Tom Thomson, The West Wind
Thomas John ‘Tom’ Thomson (August 5, 1877 – July 8, 1917) is often regarded as one of the most influential Canadian artists of the early 20th century. Having directly influenced the painters that would become known as the Group of Seven, Thomson is known for his art nouveau-inspired depictions of Canadian landscapes. Thomson’s status as a Canadian legend was furthered by the mysterious circumstances which surrounded his death on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. His iconic painting The West Wind, believed to be his last canvas, was found on an easel in his Toronto studio following his death in 1917. On the 50th anniversary of Thomson’s passing, the Canadian government honoured him with a series of stamps portraying his paintings, including The West Wind. The AGO is known for their premier collection of Canadian art, which includes the Thomson Collection of Canadian Art. Kenneth Thomson, a Canadian businessman and art collector who was the richest person in Canada at the time of his death, donated his collection to the AGO in 2006.
Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents
The AGO’s European Collection includes works that span from the Italian Renaissance to the mid-1900s. The addition of over 1,000 artworks from the Thomson Collection has significantly strengthened the AGO’s collection, particularly small-scale sculptures dating from the Middle Ages to the 1700s. Within the Thomson Collection is the AGO’s star European painting – Peter Paul Rubens’ baroque Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1611-1612). Rubens depicted the biblical Massacre of the Innocents of Bethlehem in two paintings. The first version, which ultimately found its home at the AGO, was painted by Rubens upon return to his native Antwerp in 1611. The painting came up for auction at Sotheby’s in London in 2002; Massacre was ultimately purchased by Kenneth Thomson for £49.5 million, who donated the painting to the AGO. While the AGO underwent renovations and expansion, the painting was loaned to London’s National Gallery before Massacre of the Innocents made its way to Toronto.
Augustus Edwin John, The Marchesa Casati
The art world is no stranger to muses – though, one of the AGO’s best-known muses was renowned for more than just her relation to a painter. Luisa Casati (January 23, 1881 – June 1, 1957), an Italian heiress, muse, and art patron in early 20th-century Europe, was known for her quirks. Born in Milan in 1881 into an upper class household, Casati was often seen with wild hair and make-up, accompanied by a crew of animals, including monkeys, peacocks, and cheetahs. Many saw her as a scandalous – though inspiring – figure. A serious patron of the arts, Casati, who once stated, ‘I want to be a living work of art,’ was painted and photographed hundreds of times, including this 1919 painting, The Marchesa Casati, by her lover, the British bohemian artist Augustus John.
Alex Colville, Soldier and Girl at Station
Canadian icon Alex Colville (August 24, 1920 – July 16, 2013) is known for painting markedly personal subject matter. Many of his paintings, housed in museums and private collections across Canada, hadn’t been shown publicly. That all changed with the AGO’s exhibition, Alex Colville, which ran from August 2014 to January 2015. Featuring over 100 of Colville’s works, Alex Colville became the AGO’s best-attended Canadian exhibition, drawing over 166,000 visitors. Despite Colville’s devotion to realism, his paintings display an ambiguous tension, depicting moments ‘on the edge of change and the unknown.’ 1953’s Soldier and Girl at Station is Colville at his best – ambiguous faces and personal elements (Colville served during the Second World War, and the train station resembles the train platform in Sackville, Nova Scotia, where Colville spent much of his life) that leave the viewer wondering, is he arriving or leaving?
Christi Belcourt, The Wisdom of the Universe
The Wisdom of the Universe by Christi Belcourt (born 1966) was commissioned and acquired by the AGO in 2014. The painting quickly became one of the gallery’s most celebrated works of art, and in February of 2015, The Wisdom of the Universe grabbed the top spot in the AGO’s People’s Choice. Belcourt, a Canadian Métis visual artist and author who received the 2014 Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award, was inspired by ecological concerns when creating this painting. The work encourages its viewer to consider the threatened, endangered, or extinct species in Ontario and beyond. Belcourt elaborates on these concerns to the AGO,
Globally, we live in a time of great upheaval. The state of the world is in crisis. We are witness to the unbearable suffering of species, including humans. Much of this we do to ourselves. It is possible for the planet to return to a state of well-being, but it requires a radical change in our thinking. It requires a willingness to be open to the idea that perhaps human beings have got it all wrong.