A.Y. Jackson loved the wild beauty of Canada and he painted it as only a Canadian could. As one of the founding members of the Group of Seven, which was formed in April 1920, he became known as the grand old man of Canadian painting. His time on the front lines during World War I influenced the way he approached landscape drawing and those motifs and themes reappeared in his later work.
Born in Montreal in 1882, he worked as a commercial artist in Montreal and Chicago and took art classes in the evenings. He helped support his younger siblings, but once they had grown up he was free to leave for Paris where he mixed with some of the world’s most influential artists and took up studies at the Académie Julian.
He returned to Canada and in June 1915 enlisted in the 60th Infantry Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. His opportunity to paint again came after
he was wounded at Maple Copse near Ypres, Belgium, in June 1916. The artist was wounded in the shoulder and during his convalescence he was the first Canadian to be appointed as an official war artist for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. The fund was established in 1916 to collect materials, including works of art, to preserve a historical record of the war.
Ironically, Jackson’s first commission as a war artist was a portrait, not a landscape. “Hanging over me was the prospect of being returned to the infantry if I failed in this first assignment…. I was still a private, but on the last day when I went to put in the highlights, my commission and my uniform had both arrived and I put on the final touches as a lieutenant, much to the amusement of my sitter.”
Jackson did not romanticize war, but his early paintings avoided the harsh realities of the front line.
His first depictions were serene landscapes or studies of ruins. However, as the war progressed, Jackson’s paintings grew darker and his depictions of wasted landscapes and destroyed buildings are haunting.
In 1919, Jackson returned to Montreal and was discharged. As a young artist this passionate Canadian broke from traditional painting and embraced the rugged beauty of our land. His work and the work of the Group of Seven gave us the images that define us as a nation. A.Y. Jackson died in 1974. He was 92.
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