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Franklin Carmichael, Grace Lake

By Dr. Isabelle Gapp
Franklin Carmichael, Grace Lake, 1931, oil on canvas, 102.87 x 123.19 cm (The University College Collection, University of Toronto Art Collections)
Blue lakes, white hills, pink granite ridges, sugar maples, pine, cedar, oak, black cherry, and American beech fill the La Cloche mountains in Killarney Provincial Park on Georgian Bay in Ontario. This region is situated within the southern area of the
, which itself extends across much of western and northern Ontario. A patchwork of terrains and topographies define this coastal landscape.
Map of North America showing the Canadian Shield (map: Qyd, CC0)
Franklin Carmichael made his first trip to the La Cloche area of Killarney with several members of
in 1925. Members of the Group had first visited the Algoma region north of Lakes Superior and Huron in 1918 when they stopped off in the city of Sault Ste. Marie and later travelled by rail along the coastline. Later, in 1935, Carmichael constructed a cottage on the shores of Cranberry Lake, nestled in among the La Cloche mountains and the many other lakes, including Grace Lake, that inspired him.
La Cloche Mountains, 2006, along the northern shore of Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) near Willisville, Ontario, Canada (photo: P199, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Taking a cue from current ecological and climate crises, we might begin to think art historically about the geological and environmental history of the Killarney region in contrast to the preoccupation with wilderness and national symbols that have characterized Group of Seven scholarship. [1] Seen as breaking with European artistic traditions the Group of Seven’s paintings of the Canadian landscape were equated with social, cultural, and political meanings and ideals.
One legacy of the Group was founded not on the effects of modernization but rather the notion that their work represented Canada as quintessential empty and imposing wilderness. Joan Murray describes the bedrock of the Canadian Shield as “the fundamental basis of Canada.” [2] With this I employ in the following essay an ecocritical approach, one which mobilizes multiple practices including visual analysis, cultural interpretation, environmental history, and climate change discussions.
Franklin Carmichael, Grace Lake, 1931, oil on canvas, 102.87 x 123.19 cm (The University College Collection, University of Toronto Art Collections)

A landscape of lakes

Although situated relatively inland from the archipelago of islands that are scattered along the north shore of Lake Huron, Carmichael’s Grace Lake suggests the vast proliferation of lakes in and around the La Cloche mountains. The wider view of Grace Lake has been reimagined to suggest further lakes visible over the hills. Grace Lake itself is a gradient from almost pitch black to a metallic blue, concealing the point where it joins the lakes beyond. The same metallic finish continues throughout the receding composition, contrasting with the patchwork of quartzite and granite. Where considerable attention has been paid to the foreground and the stylized sky above, the imagined landscape beyond has been left comparatively plain and unadorned.
Having first apprenticed at Grip Limited in 1911, a commercial art firm in Toronto, alongside others from the Group of Seven, in 1932 Carmichael left his job as a commercial artist to become the Head of the Graphic Design and Commercial Art Department at the Ontario College of Art. Graphic qualities are made visible in his paintings, where an emphasis on pattern, delineation of form, and design emerge from his interpretation of the natural environment. The mountains are constructed as bulbous shapes rising from the reflective pools of water that are Grace Lake and the many surrounding bodies of water. The same curvilinear forms are mirrored in the clouds above, which billow across the sky.
Joachim Gauthier, photograph of Franklin Carmichael looking down at Grace Lake, 1935 (photo: McMichael Collection)
In 1935, the artist and friend of the Group of Seven, Joachim Gauthier, took a photo of Carmichael, sat upon an exposed white quartzite rock while looking down on Grace Lake. The hooded figure of Carmichael is at work on a small sketch, propped on a board within his paint box. This same vantage point reappears throughout his work. Surrounded by the La Cloche mountains, Grace Lake is a relatively small feature on the landscape, being only two kilometers in length and a few hundred feet wide. Yet, Carmichael’s painting has expanded upon it to accommodate the extent of Killarney’s many lakes.
Franklin Carmichael, Snow Flurries, North Shore of Lake Superior, 1930, watercolor and gouache over charcoal on wove paper, 51.5 x 69 cm (National Gallery of Canada)

Gradients of geological color

Unique among members of the Group of Seven, Carmichael worked primarily with watercolor and in 1925 co-founded the Ontario Society for Painters in Watercolour. Grace Lake is, however, an exception. Here, the effects of watercolor are manifested in oil paint. While Carmichael believed that watercolor offered the best expression of the Canadian light and landscape, in lecture notes he wrote, “It is influential that the artists reveal through the medium in which he is happiest, what he sees, thinks, and feels about his surroundings.” [3] The monumentality of Grace Lake is communicated through sinuous ribbons of oil paint, preserving the same qualities of light that Carmichael usually sought in watercolor.
A. J. Casson, The White Pine, c. 1957, oil on canvas, 76 x 101.3 cm (McMichael Collection)
Formed nearly two billion years ago, the eroded ridges of the white quartzite hills of the La Cloche mountains were shaped by four different glaciers and then 11,000 years of wind and weather. Marked by higher elevations, sharp ridges, and terraced forests, the Killarney landscape is relatively inaccessible, and its distinct geological formations are thought to have once reached higher than today’s Canadian Rocky Mountains. They do, however, remain among the highest peaks in Ontario. Among these white quartzite hills is the Dreamer’s Rock, a sacred site for the Ojibwe, and the location of The White Pine, painted by Group member A.J. Casson.
With this, we should stop to recognize the erasure of Indigenous sites and peoples from the visual history of the Canadian landscape more broadly. Such thinking is critical to de-colonizing the Group’s work. [4] This is achieved by confronting the legacies of colonialism and centering Indigenous perspectives that challenge the construction of national identities that actively erase First Nations, Métis, and Inuit histories and communities. Carmichael’s Grace Lake sits on the traditional lands of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Peoples, yet any historic or contemporary human presence has been consciously removed. The Group of Seven’s landscape paintings have instead been constructed around the idea of emptiness.
Franklin Carmichael, Grace Lake (detail), 1931, oil on canvas, 102.87 x 123.19 cm (The University College Collection, University of Toronto Art Collections)
Throughout his visits to Algoma and Killarney, Carmichael’s paintings reflected the light and color that bounced off the white quartzite hills and surrounding lakes. The artist and writer, Erika Alin notes the intricacies of the Canadian Shield, where “patches of pink, red, and black minerals [. . .] form endless interesting streaks and patterns, and delicate light pink lines extend like interlocking webs across the smooth black surfaces of scattered boulders.” [5] The composition of Grace Lake is set into the granite and syenite of the Shield, painted in shades of grey, brown, yellow, and orange. Interspersed among the cliffs and rocky foreground, where a great abundance of metamorphic rock composes this never-ending coastal precipice, are patches of lichen, moss, and other vegetation.
Franklin Carmichael, Grace Lake (detail), 1931, oil on canvas, 102.87 x 123.19 cm (The University College Collection, University of Toronto Art Collections)
Unlike Grace Lake in the foreground, the bodies of water beyond are bleached a silvery blue, removing any suggestion of weather from the water’s surface. The clear-blue of the water might also indicate ecological damage, notably acidification, caused by industrial mining, a prevalent industry in the region during the early twentieth century. Neighboring Nellie Lake, for example, known for its crystal-blue color is so severely acidified that it can no longer sustain life. [6] The realities of environmental and
history, and the
of the Canadian Shield, are revealed through Carmichael’s varying application of color and his interest in form and shape. This in turn suggests Carmichael’s own awareness of Ontario’s distinct geology and ecology, with his work allowing him to explore the region’s natural history and the human-induced impact of the timber and mining industries prevalent here since the nineteenth century.

From wilderness to industrialized landscape

The Ontario wilderness that the Group of Seven sought to represent had already been shaped by growing infrastructure—notably the construction of the railway—and the development and growth of towns and cities, including Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, along the northern shores of Lakes Huron and Superior. It no longer exemplified an understanding of wilderness as a barren and desolate space, far removed from civilization. Rather, the processes of modernization facilitated the Group’s travels around Canada. There are few instances that signal the Group’s awareness of environmental damage and destruction. However, the continued threat of logging on the landscape led to Carmichael and his colleague Alexander Young (A.Y.) Jackson lobbying Ontario’s provincial government to establish Killarney as a protected area. Finally, in 1964 Killarney acquired the status of a provincial park.
Franklin Carmichael, A Northern Silver Mine, 1930, oil on canvas, 101.5 x 121.2 cm (McMichael Canadian Art Collection)
Carmichael would later in the 1930s turn to Ontario’s industrial landscape as one of the themes in his work. From the geological focus in Carmichael’s Grace Lake, we might subsequently turn our attention to scenes of the Algoma mining industry found in the work of Jackson, Carmichael, and Yvonne McKague Housser (wife of the art critic and friend of the Group Fred Housser). [7] The extractive processes of industrialization radically altered the geography and ecology of Ontario’s landscape. During the mid-twentieth century nickel mining and smelting damaged many of Killarney’s lakes, including Nellie Lake and Cranberry Lake which were repeatedly painted by Carmichael. With this, the idea of a pristine wilderness stands to be challenged further, beyond recent scholarship, as it continues to disregard the environmental realities of Indigenous history, colonization, tourism, and industrialization.
Through Carmichael’s Grace Lake, and others like it, these landscapes manifest as something other than representations of Canadian northernness and national identity. The emphasis on the use of light and color reveals the geology of the environment and the resulting ecological devastation caused by the natural resource industry. It moves away from a prevailing interest in nationalism, symbolism, and the wilderness. Such an ecocritical reading might be extended to depictions of wider Canada by the Group of Seven, and as such recontextualizes these paintings in line with environmental history at a time of unprecedented
climate change.
[1] The institution of the National Gallery of Canada also played an instrumental part in bolstering support for the Group of Seven. From 1913 onwards, prior to their formation as a Group in 1920, the NGC, initially under the direction of Eric Brown, regularly bought their paintings and later incorporated them into international exhibitions on Canadian art. This affixed both the group and the landscape they painted as national symbols.
[2] Joan Murray, Rocks: Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, and the Group of Seven (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2006), p. 25.
[3] Franklin Carmichael in Nicole Mari McKowen, “Transcendental Nature and Canadian National Identity: Franklin Carmichael’s Representation of the Canadian Landscape,” Masters dissertation, Texas Christian University, May 2019.
[4] See John O’Brian and Peter White, eds., Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007).
[5] Erika Alin, Lake Effect: Along Superior’s Shores (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 70.
[6] Justin A. Shead, “Chemical and Biological Recovery of Killarney Park, Ontario Lakes (1972-2005) From Historical Acidification,” Masters dissertation, Queen’s University, Ontario, September 2007.
[7] Kelowna Art, “Northern Pine Lecture Series with Siobhan Angus,” YouTube video, 01:04:15, January 22, 2021.
This essay is brought to you through a partnership with Open Art Histories.
Additional resources
Isabelle Gapp, “Water in the Wilderness: The Group of Seven and the Coastal Identity of Lake Superior,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 55, no. 3 (Nov 2021). DOI: 10.3138/jcs-2020-0049
Joan Murray, “Carmichael’s Triumph?,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 25, no. 2 (Summer 1990): pp. 155–59.
Martina Weinhart and Georgiana Uhlaryik, eds., Magnetic North: Imagining Canada in Painting, 1910–1940 (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2021).
Essay by Dr. Isabelle Gapp

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