Mongoose Lake, Algoma

J.E.H. MacDonald
  • Date: c. 1920
  • Medium: oil on heavy card
  • Dimensions: 22 x 22.7 cm
  • Credit Line: Art Fund, 1948
  • Permanent Collection ID: 48.A.26

Mongoose Lake, Algoma

J.E.H. MacDonald

Lawren Harris encouraged James Edward Hervey (J.E.H.) MacDonald to make his first sketching trip to the Algoma region north of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario in the fall of 1918. Harris had visited that spring, and was so impressed by its artistic potential that he rented a boxcar for himself, MacDonald, Franz Johnston and Dr. James MacCallum to sleep and travel in. (Upon their request, the Algoma Central Railway shunted the car to different stretches of unused track.)

MongooseLake was one of the “base camps” for MacDonald and his companions, who returned in various configurations from 1918 to 1922. From these years, MacDonald produced explosively coloured sketches and, later, finished canvases that pushed his already accomplished technique to new heights. A.Y. Jackson would later write, “I always think of Algoma as MacDonald’s country. He was awed by the landscape and he got the feel of it in his paintings.” 1

In the two sketches of Mongoose Lake in Museum London’s permanent collection, MacDonald reveals active and rapid brushwork; the desire to “freeze” the vivid colours of the Algoma woods and hills is more important than capturing minute detail. When moving from sketches to canvas, MacDonald retained the dazzling colour in his Algoma paintings but controlled his brush, using decorative swirls and short strokes more reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne.

If MacDonald’s technique, like those of his fellow Group of Seven painters, showed influence of European styles, it was, in his mind, used to an entirely different end. MacDonald shared the belief that the “development of a living Canadian art”2 was only possible if artists fully committed themselves to the challenge of expressing the uniqueness of their environment. That meant discovering, as Harris wrote, “that there were cloud formations and rhythms peculiar to different parts of the country and to different seasons of the year.”3 And it meant MacDonald experiencing “something of the feeling of the early explorers” as he tried to “paint the soul of things”4 in the magnificent landscape of Algoma.

1. A Painter’s Country: The Autobiography of A.Y. Jackson (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin), 1958.

2. quoted in Anne Newlands, Canadian Paintings, Prints and Drawings (Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2007), 194.

3. quoted in David Silcox, The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (Toronto: Firefly Books, 2003), 300.

4. quoted in Anne Newlands, 194.