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As a young foreign service officer with the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. during the mid-1970’s (post Nixon, during Ford and Carter), I had responsibility for several of our (the Public Affairs Bureau) outreach activities. One of these was promoting Canadian arts and culture. That job included every discipline, including music, literature, art, etc. Not to ignore the more esoteric forms of culture: bowling tournaments (where I got to meet the great Jesse Owens), sporting events and marching band competitions (yes, you read that right) involving Canadian teams, where I represented the Ambassador or Government of Canada.
While most of my colleagues aspired to be part of the political or economic sectors, cultural and information work provided no end of opportunities. It was an exciting time to be in Washington, and the American Bicentennial (1776) meant no end of celebratory occasions, with lots of prominent Canadian artists making their to the US capitol to promote their work or participate in projects organized by the Embassy. I could namedrop a few Canadian artists of renown. All right, since you ask, here are a few: authors (Robertson Davies, Chief Dan George), playwrights (Michel Tremblay), pianists (Janina Fialkowska and Jane Coop), artists (Harold Town and Dorothy Knowles), and ex-politicians (Walter Gordon).
I could go on, but don’t wish to bore you. That being said, I will mention one individual who stood out for me: the artist and Group of Seven member, A.J. Casson. More on Mr. Casson below.
In honor of the US Bicentennial, along with assisting in organizing a symposium on 20th Century Canadian Culture, a show of contemporary painting at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (14 Canadians) and a whole host of events from January to April 1977, the Embassy also helped put on an exhibition of Canada’s famed Group of Seven (loaned from the McMichael Collection) at Washington’s Phillips Collection.
This was the catalogue for the show:
and the inside front page, signed by A.J. Casson:
If ever a collection of painters is synonymous with Canada’s national identity it is the Group of Seven (although when you add it all up, they actually number twelve). The following, taken from the Group of Seven website, provides the best encapsulation I’ve seen of their membership and origin:
“Also sometimes known as the Algonquin School, the Group of Seven was a group of Canadian landscape painters from 1920 to 1933, originally consisting of Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), A. Y. Jackson (1882–1974), Frank Johnston (1888–1949), Arthur Lismer (1885–1969), J. E. H. MacDonald (1873–1932), and Frederick Varley (1881–1969). Later, A. J. Casson (1898–1992) was invited to join in 1926, Edwin Holgate (1892–1977) became a member in 1930, and LeMoine FitzGerald (1890–1956) joined in 1932.
“Two artists commonly associated with the group are Tom Thomson (1877–1917) and Emily Carr (1871–1945). Although he died before its official formation, Thomson had a significant influence on the group. In an essay, Harris wrote that Thomson was “a part of the movement before we pinned a label on it”; Thomson’s paintings The West Wind and The Jack Pine are two of the group’s most iconic pieces. Emily Carr was also closely associated with the Group, though never an official member.
“Believing that a distinct Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature, the Group is best known for its paintings inspired by the Canadian landscape, and initiated the first major Canadian national art movement.”
Considerably younger than the other members, by early 1977, Alfred Joseph Casson was going on 79 years old and the last man standing, certainly the only one left who could attend such a prestigious show. I got to spend some time with him at the opening reception and, above all, I was impressed with his incredible (and surprising, at least to me) modesty. Despite being “one of the finest watercolourists in Canadian art” (I quote from the catalogue) he told me he never considered himself worthy of being part of the esteemed Group of Seven. I think, being a conservative artist (some might say old-fashioned by the 70’s era) during a time of generational change, he recognized he was out of sync with the present day crowd.
Noted Canadian art critic and writer Paul Duval (1922 – 2018) called Casson “one of the most powerful and expressive watercolour painters Canada had ever known. His compositions had acquired a sure formalization, his washes were laid with such a consummate assurance and the boldness of his colour revealed a brilliance and depth then rarely seen in the medium, he managed to convey the maximum of depth in his shadows without destroying the transparency of gis paint or the integrity of the luminous white paper beneath it.” (A.J. Casson, My Favourite Watercolours, 1919 to 1957, p. 7)
Although Casson produced his share of paintings of Ontario’s great lakes and surrounding parks, he focused more on the small towns and villages of central Ontario. Here are my favourites chosen from among his favourites (my photographs from his book):
I’ve much more to say about my all-too-brief time in Washington and its effect on my interest in the world of art, but I’ll leave that to another time.