A Painter’s Wartime Experiences Told – Winnipeg Free Press
Douglas Hunter is an award-winning journalist and historian. He has published books on a variety of historical subjects, including 2021 The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America’s Native Past.
His latest book Jackson’s Wars is not a complete biography of painter AY Jackson; rather, it is an account of his early days as an artist and his years on the Western Front during the First World War. Jackson was one of the founding painters of the Group of Seven; Hunter’s book gives us plenty of detail up to the early 1920s when, with the war over, the group began to exhibit and have some success in their “war” to establish a style of post-Impressionist Canadian painting.
Alexander Young Jackson was born in Montreal in 1882. At the age of nine, his father went bankrupt and Jackson was forced to leave school and go to work in an advertising lithography company to help the family pay their bills. . Later, he studied at the Conseil des Arts et Manufactures from 1898, and the lessons in lithography were invaluable. He was able to make a living creating lithographs of mattresses, ladies’ shoes, and literally anything that could appear in a catalog. In the evening, he goes to the Art Association of Montreal. Jackson was impressed by instructor William Brynner, who encouraged his students to try creating Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.
Jackson worked and studied in Chicago and saved money so he could go to Paris and study at the Académie Julian, where many other Canadians also studied. He traveled to France before the Great War, where he met his close friend, the painter Rudolf Hewlett, and studied Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, striving to develop new styles and colors. Before the war, they put on a two-man show which received positive reviews and was called promising. For artists like them, they started in a period of depression, after 1912, when the collectors of paintings could no longer afford to do so.
With the start of the First World War, several Canadian painters enlisted in the army. Jackson hesitated until 1915, when he became a soldier in the Canadian infantry, saying he wanted to start at the bottom to learn about the military. He was friends with Lawren Harris at this time and Harris, being wealthy – from the Harris family of Massey Harris – offered to have him appointed lieutenant. Jackson refused.
Most of the men who would form the Group of Seven were in the military. Jackson became exhausted and in shock from his experiences in the trenches. In 1917, Canadian artists suffered a tragic loss when Tom Thomson, a painter who acted as something of an inspiration and mentor to many young artists, drowned at Canoe Lake in northern Ontario. . Although Thomson did not want to enlist in the army, he was nevertheless lost to Canadian painting.
Jackson was involved in several bloody battles, eventually carrying two shrapnel through his body. In November 1917, he was saved from further danger when Lord Beaverbrook decided to start funding a series of paintings by Canadian artists that would show the Canadian public what their soldiers were doing at the front. Jackson was one of the painters Beaverbrook recruited for his works, making him a lieutenant and, like other painters, telling him to do whatever paintings he wanted. Canadians were told to make sketches of scenes which would then be given to British painters to make major oils.
Jackson and other artists returned to Canada at the end of the war and asked to create paintings of war factories and to show what had been done to support the war at home. Jackson took on some of this work, but soon he and the other members of the Group of Seven, who had now taken shape, opened two exhibitions, in 1920 and 1921 – and the Group was truly established.
Whereas Jackson’s Wars Largely concerned with the war and Jackson’s war experiences, it provides an interesting introduction to the development and birth of the Group of Seven. It is well written and profusely accompanied by footnotes should readers wish to learn more , and is also recommended for general readers.
Jim Blanchard is a local historian and retired University of Manitoba librarian.