Seven stamps celebrate centennial of first Group of Seven exhibition

By Jesse Robitaille

Set launched in online ceremonies with several Canadian art galleries

A seven-stamp set marking the centennial of the Group of Seven’s first exhibition was issued by Canada Post today.

One hundred years earlier, Canadian art enthusiasts witnessed for the first time the work of the Group of Seven, which later became Canada’s best-known school of art. It was May 7, 1920, when artists Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley hosted their first exhibition under the banner of the Group of Seven.

“The group of seven artists whose pictures are here exhibited have for several years held a like vision concerning Art in Canada,” reads the 100-year-old exhibition catalogue. “They are all imbued with the idea that an Art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people.”

Held at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario, or AGO), the art show attracted more than 2,000 visitors during its 20-day run; however, of the more than 120 paintings on display, only a handful of pieces were sold.

The headline of a review published in Toronto’s Daily Star newspaper read, “Seven Painters Show Some Excellent Work,” which reflected “the moderate opinion of most critics,” according to a statement from the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, which unveiled the new issue’s official first-day covers (OFDCs) today.

Now closed due to COVID-19, the Ontario-based art museum was also slated to host a year-long exhibition, “A Like Vision,” to mark the group’s centennial.

The catalogue for the Group of Seven’s first exhibition, which opened on May 7, 1920, explained the artists’ belief that ‘art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people.’ (Photo via the E.P. Taylor Library and Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario)

Another 1920 story review by The Canadian Courier asked, “Are these new Canadian painters crazy?”

After the Group of Seven’s first exhibition opened, Jackson wrote a letter to his mother stating the event was “attracting quite a lot of attention even if it is not understood.”

Sometimes referred to as “the hot mush school” in the group’s early years, the painters’ work eventually earned the respect of art critics for painting Canada “as nobody had ever thought of painting it before,” according to the National Gallery of Canada, which unveiled two of the seven stamps on May 6, a day before they were issued.

“The wild colours of a Canadian autumn; the solitary lakes of northland; the monolithic islands of Lake Superior; the glacier-tortured landscape of the Laurentian Shield; the grim exhaustion of a hillside emerging from four months of winter snow – this was Canada as it is, a land like none other, and Canadians abruptly recognized it as their own.”

The group’s final show – also held at the AGO – opened in December 1931.

SEVEN STAMPS

The set of seven Permanent domestic-rate stamps features paintings from each of the group’s founding members, including:

  • Carmichael’s In the Nickel Belt (1928);
  • Harris’ Miner’s Houses, Glace Bay (circa 1925);
  • Jackson’s Labrador Coast (1930);
  • Johnston’s Fire-swept Algoma (1920);
  • Lismer’s Quebec Village (1926);
  • MacDonald’s Church by the Sea (1924); and
  • Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (1921).

The issue is available in seven-stamp self-adhesive booklets and traditional-gum mini-panes plus a set of seven OFDCs, each of which are serviced with cancellations from locations “significant to each artist,” according to Canada Post.

Using works drawn from six major Canadian art galleries and photographs from the archives of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the issue was designed by Lionel Gadoury, Andrew Conlon and Matthew Killin, of Toronto’s Context Creative. It was printed by Ottawa’s Lowe-Martin.

Seven official first-day covers were also issued today as part of the new Group of Seven set.

VIRTUAL UNVEILINGS

On May 6, a day before the stamps were issued, the set was launched through several live-streamed ceremonies held at Canadian galleries, including the AGO; the Art Museum at the University of Toronto; the Ottawa Art Gallery; the National Gallery of Canada; the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University; and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The issue was available via canadapost.ca/shop beginning on May 7.

PAST ISSUES

In past years, Canada Post – and its earlier iteration, the Post Office Department – has issued several Group of Seven-related stamps.

In 1970, a six-cent stamp marking the group’s 50th anniversary was issued by the Post Office Department. It depicted Lismer’s 1922 painting Isles of Spruce.

Three years later, MacDonald’s 1922 painting Mist Fantasy, Northland was featured on a 15-cent stamp.

In 1977, a pair of 12-cent stamps depicted Autumn Birches and April in Algonquin Park by Tom Thomson, who painted with members of the eventual Group of Seven before his mysterious death in 1917.

In 1981, one of three stamps released as part of that year’s “Canadian Art” set depicted Varley’s circa 1945 Self Portrait on a 17-cent issue.

Towards the end of that decade, in 1989, one of four Christmas stamps – part of a set entitled “Winter Landscapes” – featured Harris’ 1915 painting Snow II on a 44-cent issue.

In 1995, the Group of Seven’s original members were featured in another seven-stamp set issued for Canada Day. Each of the 43-cent stamps depicted one of the artists’ paintings, including:

  • Johnston’s 1922 Serenity, Lake of the Woods;
  • Lismer’s 1921 A September Gale, Georgian Bay;
  • MacDonald’s 1920 Falls, Montreal River;
  • Varley’s circa 1933 Open Window;
  • Carmichael’s 1922 October Gold;
  • Harris’ 1923 North of Lake Superior; and
  • Jackson’s 1932-33 Evening, Les Éboulements.

Finally, as part of the 2004-12 “Art Canada” series, two of the set’s 22 stamps featured the work of Prudence Heward (At the Theatre and Rollande), who rose to prominence after an acclaimed exhibition with the Group of Seven in 1928.

“In my opinion, Prudence Heward was the very best painter we ever had in Canada and she never got the recognition she richly deserved in her lifetime,” said Jackson. “I wanted her to join the Group of Seven, but like the Twelve Apostles, no women were included.”

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