Chill November

     November is a dreary month with nothing much to recommend it.   Bare trees, gray skies, and chilly temperatures with nothing to look forward to except perhaps the Black Friday sales (we had our Canadian Thanksgiving in October) and the jingling of distant Christmas bells.   This year we had several pleasant weeks of t-shirt weather with record breaking temperatures, followed by sweater-weather perfect for yard-work cleanup, but now we’re deep in the chill of November. 

Unlike their human equivalents, the snowbirds, who are stuck here in the wintry north this year, deprived of their annual jaunts to Florida, Arizona, and all places warm, the Canadian geese are honking their way south.

Honk if you’re heading south….

This photo is courtesy of Linda, who recently blogged about a Canadian Goose Convention. It has always amazed me how the geese can elect a leader (hopefully without all the current drama), adopt a flight plan (ideally bi-partisan) and wing their way south in a perfect V formation to a better place in the sun.   But knowing how cantankerous geese can be, I doubt it’s all smooth sailing.   Anyone who has ever sought to capture geese in-flight has eventually given up, as by the time their loud honking announces their presence and you whip out the camera, they are long past.   We do have some geese who overwinter here in a park, where an industrial plant ejects warm waste water into a nearby creek, but they are annoying creatures who deposit green goop all over instead of winging their way south like good little geese should.     

This painting “Chill November” depicting the annual migration of the geese against a frosty background, was painted by Canadian artist, Tom Thomson, in 1916-17. 

Chill November – Tom Thomson, 1916-17, oil on canvas.

After WW1 had ended, a group of local women, who had been part of the Red Cross volunteers raising money for the war effort, decided to form a committee, known as the Women’s Conservation Art Association. Their aim was to purchase art for a public gallery they hoped to open someday in the city.  After four years of war and with the Spanish flu still raging, perhaps they dared to hope for a brighter future?

Their focus was on acquiring Canadian art, and at the forefront of this movement was the now iconic Group of Seven, (see Wikipedia link), an association of male landscape painters known for their scenes of the Canadian wilderness, especially Algonquin Park.  Tom Thomson (see Wikipedia link), although often included in this famous group, knew several of the members but died tragically before it was formed.    There is much mystery and speculation about his death during a fishing expedition in 1917. The official report was accidental drowning – his canoe found adrift and his body 8 days later with a large gash on his head – but was it an accident or murder, suicide or revenge – the tall tales abound.  He was only 39 and as often happens, the mystique surrounding his early and sudden death only added to the value of his work.       

“Chill November” was one of the art committees first acquisitions in 1920.   Last spring I attended a hundred anniversary exhibit of the painting, which was accompanied by artifacts surrounding it’s purchase and a preliminary sketch on loan from another gallery.

Wild Geese – preliminary sketch for Chill November – Tom Thomson 1916

The small (8X10) preliminary sketch Wild Geese, was painted “plein air” in the summer of 1916 in Algonquin Park and served as the model when he painted Chill November in his studio in Toronto the following winter as was his custom, for the wilderness trips were not suited to larger canvases.

I like to picture Tom lying in his canoe on a dark and chilly afternoon, studying that V formation, as the geese pass overhead – maybe having a sip of whiskey from his flask, for he was known to have a drink or two…

Chill November, is a large piece at 34 X 40 inches. This is not the best shot unfortunately, as the lighting was soft in the gallery with the spotlights making it too dim for picture taking. The painting itself was sacred of course, as anything of artistic merit is, but as a history lover, what I liked most about the exhibit was the historical documentation of the purchase.

Here’s a copy of some of the correspondence, as Dr. James McCallum, a Toronto ophthalmologist and early patron of the Group of Seven, tries to steer the art committee, towards this particular piece.     

At that time, $600 was a fair bit of money to spend on one painting, but they did, and here is the cash ledger book recording the purchase, and incidentally not a bad return on their investment with today’s current value at one million plus.   

There was lots of other historical information on display including a booklet documenting how it was loaned out over the years, for it was a well traveled painting, plus information about the artists life.

He displayed no early artistic talent – his painting evolved from his job as a graphic designer and his love of the great outdoors. From 1913 on he spend his summers working as a fishing guide in Algonquin Park, and once a fire ranger, sketching on the side, occasionally sponsored by Dr. McCallum who owned a cottage on Georgian Bay. Predominately known as a landscape painter, he was well into his 30’s before he sold his first painting (1913) and in his short career produced 400 oil sketches on wood panels and 50 larger oil canvases. Known for expressing self-doubt, he would sometimes give away his sketches if someone admired them – one was recently unearthed in someone’s basement and sold for half a million. A turning point in his career came in 1914, when the National Gallery of Canada began to acquire his paintings, a recognition unheard of for an unknown artist. His love of color and broad brush strokes remind me of Van Gogh, although his subject matter was the wilderness – trees, skies and rivers.

Dr. McCallum’s history of first meeting the Painter of the North

He does look like a lumberjack in that picture, but he cleaned up well.

His most famous painting, The Jack Pine, an iconic image of the Canadian wilderness, resides in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (Wikipedia link)

Jack Pine – Tom Thomson 1917

The women’s art committee continued to raise money and bought several other Group of Seven paintings, which along with Chill November, were part of the 25 pieces they donated to the city library in 1956 when they disbanded.  I remember going to visit the art room atop the main library branch, and being underwhelmed.   All the good stuff was stored in vaults for security reasons.

In 2012 the city finally got it’s own art gallery, to the tune of 9 million dollars worth of fund raising.  It was a case of either having a proper temperature/humidity-controlled environment or getting rid of all the art.  Much public complaining ensued about wasting tax payers money, especially when they renovated an old heritage building downtown, but with the aid of government funding and corporate donations plus a large benefactor after whom the gallery was named, they met their goal, a hundred years late. (They now number 1253 pieces in their permanent collection, many through private donations). There was a lot less complaining after the Beaverbrook Masterworks exhibit came through in 2015 (a major coup for a small gallery) and the public got to view the famous 13 foot high Salvador Dali painting, “Santiago El Grande.” – truly an awesome sight. Even those who haven’t had much exposure to art, can learn to like it, myself included.  

I had little interest in the art world until my mother started painting (age 87) and exhibiting (age 90), and even now I sometimes find it to be a strange and foreign land. (When I was in school you were either an “artsy-type” or a “science nerd”, now known as a “STEMi” but never both, now most colleges want a well-rounded individual). If someone had told me decades ago that I would be hanging around the fringes of the art world in my retirement I wouldn’t have believed them. I’m still puzzled about why one painting is worth so much, while another, much nicer, is not. Art tends to be subjective, while science deals in reality. Abstract painting seems to be very popular, but is the genre I struggle the most to appreciate and understand, as well as art installations which may be thought-provoking but sometimes just seem too weird. A trip to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in my younger years, left me baffled over the display of a solitary three-dimensional fence post, similar to the weather-beaten ones on my parents farm. I recall taking a picture of it to show my dad.  

So that brings us to the question – what place does art and culture have in lifting our spirits in troubled times, for 2020 has definitely been a year of gloom and doom.   If you don’t have art, music, books, movies, or whatever form of culture you happen to enjoy, aren’t the days all just the same – work, eat, sleep, repeat, with nothing to look forward to and nothing to soothe your soul. (Books are my preference, but lately while walking, I have Moonlight Sonata on endless repeat. It seems the perfect soundtrack for these gloomy November days).

What possessed those women one hundred years ago to spend their left-over funds on art?  They were war-weary, and pandemic-weary. Certainly, there were more worthwhile and practical causes to spent the money on, with returning soldiers unable to support themselves and the Spanish flu leaving many families without incomes.  Or did they feel the world needed some culture instead, a glimpse of hope for a brighter future?  Maybe they felt buying a piece of beauty was the better purchase, something to lighten their days and to last for always.  

Here is a letter documenting the turnout to view the paintings in 1920, (hopefully they wore masks).

The Library building was crowded and hundreds of people came to see the paintings….

Even if you’re of the opinion that Chill November is a rather gloomy picture, you have to admire it’s very Canadianness.  It’s the way the country was, a land full of wilderness….and geese on the wing!

What will be remembered of us, a hundred years from now?   Time will tell…..in the meantime – bundle up.  It’s chilly out there!