Thomas John “Tom” Thomson was born near Claremont, Ontario to John and Margaret Thomson and grew up in Leith, Ontario, near Owen Sound. In 1899, he entered a machine shop apprenticeship at an iron foundry owned by William Kennedy, a close friend of his father. He was fired from his apprenticeship by a foreman who complained of Thomson’s habitual tardiness. Also in 1899, he volunteered to fight in the Second Boer War, but was turned down because of a medical condition. Thomson was reputed to have been refused entry into the Canadian Expeditionary Force for service in the First World War also. He served as a fire ranger in Algonquin Park during this time. In 1901, he enrolled in a business college in Chatham, Ontario, but dropped out eight months later to join his older brother, George Thomson, who was operating a business school in Seattle. There he met and had a brief summer romance with Alice Elinor Lambert. In 1904, he returned to Canada, and may have studied with William Cruikshank, 1905–1906. In 1907, Thomson joined Grip Ltd., an artistic design firm in Toronto, where many of the future members of the Group of Seven also worked.
Thomson first visited Algonquin Park in 1912. There after he often traveled around Ontario with his colleagues, especially to the wilderness of Ontario, which was to be a major source of inspiration for him. In 1912 he began working, along with other artists who would go on to form the Group of Seven after his death, at Rous and Mann Press, but left the following year to work as a full-time artist. He first exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists in 1913, and became a member in 1914 when the National Gallery of Canada purchased one of his paintings. He would continue to exhibit with the Ontario Society until his death. For several years he shared a studio and living quarters with fellow artists. Beginning in 1914 he worked intermittently as a fire fighter, ranger, and guide in Algonquin Park, but found that such work did not allow enough time for painting. During the next three years, he produced many of his most famous works, including The Jack Pine, The West Wind and The Northern River.
Thomson was largely self-taught. He was employed as a graphic designer with Toronto’s Grip Ltd., an experience which honed his draughtsmanship. Although he began painting and drawing at an early age, it was only in 1912, when Thomson was well into his thirties, that he began to paint seriously. His first trips to Algonquin Park inspired him to follow the lead of fellow artists in producing oil sketches of natural scenes on small, rectangular panels for easy portability while travelling. Between 1912 and his death in 1917, Thomson produced hundreds of these small sketches, many of which are now considered works in their own right, and are housed in such galleries as the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
Although the Group of Seven was not founded until after Thomson’s death, his work is sympathetic to that of group members A. Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, and Arthur Lismer. These artists shared an appreciation for rugged, unkempt natural scenery, and all used broad brush strokes and a liberal application of paint to capture the stark beauty and vibrant colour of the Ontario landscape.
Thomson disappeared during a canoeing trip on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park on July 8, 1917, and his body was discovered in the lake eight days later.