A key part of the story of the great Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson, who
drowned in Algonquin Provincial Park’s Canoe Lake on July 8, 1917, nobody writing
about him wants to talk about directly is whether he suffered from what mental health
professional today call manic depressive or bipolar affective disorder.
One of the editors assigned to my book, Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's Last Spring,
challenged my book's conclusion because few of his earlier biographers even mention
the possibility that he suffered from such a severe mental illness. “If it was so critical,
why didn’t they write about it?” she said.
Well, I said, some did, if only indirectly. They can neatly be divided into two groups. This
essay will bring together cautiously what little has been said about the subject
because, as an expert in the field, psychiatrist Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., has
observed, “That impassioned moods, shattered reason and the artistic temperament
can be welded into ‘that fine madness’ remains a fiercely controversial subject. . . .
Excesses of psychoanalytic speculation, along with other abuses of psychobiography,
have invited well-deserved ridicule.”
In writing this essay, I am further cautioned by what Jim Poling, Sr., said in Tom
Thomson: The Life and Mysterious Death of the Famous Canadian Painter (Altitude
2003). “Which was the real Tom Thomson?" he wrote. "A sunny new-century artist
eating the best fare offered at the Arts and Letters Club in what was then the country’s
second largest city? Or the brooding woodsman dressed in fishing clothes and boiling
water on the portage to Tea Lake. He was probably both. Most of us have two different
sides, and Thomson’s are exaggerated by the exasperation of people who want to
know more about him but can’t because his time in the spotlight was so brief and so
In one group, therefore, I put Mark Robinson, Albert H. Robson, R.H. Hubbard, Poling
and myself, who drew their conclusions about Thomson’s mental health from objective
facts about his behavior. One of the persons who best knew Thomson was Mark
Robinson, an Algonquin Provincial Park ranger and later park superintendent. On March
23, 1930, he responding by letter to inquires from journalist Blodwen Davies for a book
she was working on, the first definitive biography, A Study of Tom Thomson: The Story
of a Man Who Looked For Beauty and For Truth in the Wilderness. Mark Robinson said:
“Yes, I knew Thomas Thomson very well. We were friends and spent many happy hours
together on the trail and by the camp fire, discussing the beauties of nature, the wild
friends of the forest, fishing, etc. He was a study at all times. One day he was jovial and
jolly and ready for a frolic of any kind so long as it was clean and honest in its purpose.
At times he appeared melancholy and defeated in manner. At such times he would
suddenly as it were awaken and be almost angry in appearance and action. It was at
those times that he did his best work. He would quite often come dashing into My Cabin
and in an excited tone ask about certain rocks or trees or rolling hills.”
Robson’s eight-page essay with many reproductions of his painting, Tom Thomson,
said the budding artist came to work for him at the Grip Limited in Toronto in 1908.
“Shortly after hiring him I received a gratuitous and unsolicited telephone call from a
previous employer belittling Thomson as an erratic and difficult man in a department,”
Robson said. “This was as absurd as it was untrue. Thomson was a most diligent,
reliable and capable craftsman. Nothing seemed to disturb the even tenor of his way.”
Others disagreed, however, that Thomson was, indeed, an erratic and difficult man.
Hubbard’s brief 1962 biography, Tom Thomson, said of Tom, “At times he could moody
and temperamental and deeply discouraged. . . .There is something tantalizing about
the life of an artist who dies comparatively young, and in such cases there sometimes
appears a feverish activity that almost compensates for a short career.”
As already mentioned, Poling draws up short of reaching the conclusion that I came to
but he lays out the opinions of Thomson’s friends dramatically. “[Q]uirky behavior built
Thomson a reputation as being different and sometimes difficult,” Poling writes.
"Friends commented on his moodiness. . . .[Artist and friend] A.Y. Jackson once said
that Thomson had fits of unreasonable despondency.” He quotes artist and friend
Arthur Lismer as saying, “He was a creature of depression and ecstatic moments.” He
cites remarks by Mrs. Daphne Crombie, who got to know Thomson during his last
spring. “He was a rather moody, quiet chap, and rather withdrawn,” she said.
“These observations helped create an impression of a split personality, or at least a
man with two very different sides,” Poling emphasizes.
In the other group are art historians Joan Murray and David Silcox. They draw their
subjective opinion about Thomson’s mental state rather from what they see in the daily
series of 62 oil on wooden panel sketches he painted during his last spring. In Tom
Thomson: The Last Spring, Ms. Murray dismisses the evidence of friends and
acquaintances reported by Robinson and Poling.
“Anyone acquainted with Thomson’s violent mood fluctuations and wild drinking would
question the feelings of his friends,” she said. “His hell-raising, anarchic individualism
may have been the side of a depressive personality. But his fellow artists did not know,
it seems, his dark side, certainly they have not recorded it, and it appears only in the
records of youthful companions.”
In The Art of Tom Thomson, for a 1971 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, she wrote,
“Any suspicion of Thomson’s death as suicide should be dispelled by these last
sketches. They are the best and most trenchant works the artist ever created, and are
pervaded with a calm serenity and certitude of mood which no potential suicide could
possibly capture. There is, as well, Thomson’s remark in a letter written to Dr. James H.
MacCallum, the day before the one he was last seen alive, saying he would be sending
down his winter sketches quite soon, to which he added ‘have every intention of making
some more . . . .’”
Ms. Murray sums her view up in Tom Thomson: The Last Spring by saying, “[T]he use of
a series, the idea of art as a process with an inevitable succession, shows us that
Thomson had begun to think more of the future—his future. There are other signs in the
work that he expected these sketches to take him somewhere. In several brilliantly
conceived works he chose to see the view from a height; the result is a panorama
unusual in his work. Where was going? What was he coming from?”
David Silcox similarly concludes in his essay for Tom Thomson: The Silence and the
Storm, that “[s]uicide is the most unlikely possibility, since drowning was the only
method available, and dead people do not bleed. Besides, Thomson’s frame of mind,
his melancholy days notwithstanding, was very positive.” What Silcox says about
Thomson’s frame of mind that last spring obviously draws upon what he, too, sees in
Thomson’s 62 last spring paintings.
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, 59-year-old professor of psychiatry at the John Hopkins
University School of Medicine, is one of the foremost experts on bipolar affective
disorder from which she herself suffers. “The clinical reality of manic-depressive illness
is far more lethal and infinitely more complex than the current psychiatric nomenclature,
bipolar disorder, would suggest,” she writes in her 1993 book, Touched With Fire:
Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
“Cycles of fluctuating moods and energy levels serve as a background to constantly
changing thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. The illness encompasses the extremes of
human experience. Thinking can range from florid psychosis or ‘madness.’ to patterns
of unusually clear, fast and creative associations . . . . Behavior can be frenzied,
expansive, bizarre, and seductive, or it can be seclusive, sluggish, and dangerously
suicidal.” (Emphasis added.)
How Robinson and his other friends described Tom Thomson behavior can only be
seen for what it is—a man displaying symptoms of bipolar disorder. The evidence for
concluding that Thomson was suffering such a dangerous condition is clear and
convincing. He painted feverishly for 62 days from March 23 to May 24, when he abruptly
quit following a visit from his art patron and friend, Dr. MacCallum and the departure
from Mowat of his girlfriend, Winnifred Trainor. What happened then may be of
consequence to the progress of his mental illness.
During the following weeks, he gave away many of his possessions, including his
camping equipment, shipped to a friend in a northern area of the Park. All of his 62
paintings, sketch box, paints, oil and brushes were missing from his room in the Mowat
Lodge when he drowned and only some were found later elsewhere later. The night
before he drowned he was involved in a violently angry argument at a party at the cabin
of George Rowe. He was drinking heavily.
People with bipolar disorder often become suicidal, especially when symptoms of
mania and depression occur together. Increased energy and anger, from irritability to
full blown rage, are the most common symptoms. Symptoms may also include auditory
hallucinations, confusion, insomnia, delusions, racing thoughts and restlessness.
Alcohol may trigger the final crisis. The view of art historians that a swing from mania to
depression to suicide is unthinkable because no artist, who created such joyful, life-
affirming landscape paintings in that last spring series would have killed himself,
simply ignores such the evidence.
Finally, Dr. Jamison drew on research by a nineteenth century Italian psychiatrist dating
the production of hundreds of poems, paintings, and music to show that peaks of
creative production occur in late spring and autumn.
“The progression of seasons is among the most commonly used metaphors in art,
signifying—among many other things—the passage of time, extremes and contrasts in
the natural world and the cyclicity of life, the inevitability of death, belief in rebirth, and the
impermanence of life, as well as the stages of human life,” she writes. “So, too, the
seasons have become metaphorical for life, and the creative process itself, its barren
winters and hoped-for springs, and its mixed and disturbed seasons, so beautifully
captured by T.S. Elliot.”
I will end this essay with the excerpt from “Little Gidding” she quotes in her book, which
describes the late March to late May days when Tom was painting in Algonquin Park in
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
That Fine Madness
& Tom Thomson