Let’s play a game. Let’s grab a patch of raw green grass, spread our limbs on it like starfish, stretch our vision to hold the blue of the sky, and tag the clouds above our heads. Does that one look like an elephant taking a bath?
And if you’re too shy or too busy to play my game, then Tom Thomson offers you the sky on a silver platter in Summer Day. It’s almost as if the Canadian has turned the world upside down. Clouds are billowing in the wind like sailboats gliding across seas, while the deep blue lake – a thin horizontal stretch at the bottom of the painting – is as imperturbable as the night sky. Around the clouds, sweeps of blue have been spontaneously applied with the reckless abandon of a 5-year-old leaning over her coloring book.
Freedom comes with a complete change in perspective, and – in Thomson’s case – with thick brushstrokes and a break from civilization in the wilderness of Algonquin Park in Ontario. The artist spent every spring and summer between 1912 and 1917 there, traveling by canoe, camping along the way, and taking seasonal jobs as a fire ranger and a fishing guide, a flexible schedule which allowed him to complete at least a sketch a day in the great outdoors.
In Algonquin is where Thomson painted Summer Day and some of his best studies. It’s where he truly matured as a landscape artist. But sometime around July 8, 1917, this natural park became so much more than that – more than inspiration, more than a place of unbridled beauty. That summer Algonquin Park became the site where 39-year-old Thomson exhaled his last breath, his body found submerged in Canoe Lake. It was an abrupt end to a life still blooming, an inexplicable death that is shrouded in mystery even a century later. Whether it was murder, suicide, or a canoe accident, there is a tragic poetry to his life coming full circle, dying in the very place that birthed him as an artist.