THIS oil painting in a sense is a graphic typification of the artist himself: long of limb, weathered; and the expanses of lake and sky, together with the middle-distance land masses, combine to project a setting for the tree that seems to me to be just right. I think of Tom Thomson, no less than this jack pine, as a sort of sentinel standing guard over the best interests of Algonquin Park, Ontario's magnificent, 2,900-square-mile nature reserve. No paintings were better known to Canadian children of school age, particularly those growing up in the 1940s and '50s, than ``The Jack Pine'' and a companion piece, ``The West Wind.'' Reproductions of them were to be found in elementary school art classes from one end of the country to the other. Tom Thomson was not the most highly acclaimed Canadian artist of his era. Unlike his friends and colleagues, he did not study art in France, England, or the United States. He was out of the country only once w hen, at 25 years of age, he joined a brother in Seattle; but he was there at most for two years.
In attempting to rationalize the popularity of this painting and so many of his others -- in the eyes of the general public and art experts alike -- I am drawn to conclude that there are three principal, interrelated reasons: Thomson's acceptance of his own formative influences, loyalty to place, and consistency of purpose and endeavor.
Thomson was a small-town boy, reared in Owen Sound, which, to the people of southwestern Ontario, would be considered north, verging on wilderness. He attended business college, then went on to work as a commercial artist with photoengraving firms in Toronto. Some art connoisseurs have seen in Thomson's paintings a ``decorative quality,'' something akin to that found in the early works of Matisse.
Well, yes, the boughs of this tree, the arrangement and configurations of clumps of foliage, and the thin, ``dripping'' branches are decorative, but not, I suggest, distractingly so, not out of character.
Thomson's first visit to Algonquin Park was in May 1912, when he camped with a colleague at a spot called Tea Lake Dam. Nowadays the park is a popular vacationland, dotted with campsites and picnic grounds, but in those times it was ``the north'' -- a largely uninhabited, little-known wilderness region. His enthusiasm for the place, and the vitality of his initial sketches and paintings there, caught the imagination of a handful of fellow artists, much more widely known than he, persuading them to take a good look for themselves.
What they saw, but could hardly be expected to capture, were the distinctive qualities of works like ``The Jack Pine.'' Thomson, from the very first moment, it would appear, had staked his artistic claim to Algon-quin Park. Indeed, between 1912 and 1917 -- the brief but wholly absorbing span of his life in that area -- only once did he paint elsewhere, and that none too successfully. To his fellow artists, though, the park was but one of several painting locations.
I used the word ``sentinel'' to describe Thomson. He did in fact work summers as a fire ranger in Algon-quin Park, when he wasn't painting, fishing, or filling in as a guide.
Algonquin Park -- specifically Canoe Lake -- was to claim Tom Thomson. He disappeared on July 8, 1917, and on the 16th day of that month it was learned he had drowned. The circumstances remain a mystery to this day. None of his friends returned to that nature reserve to paint there again.
A. Y. Jackson, one of Thomson's colleagues, who taught him and learned from him, saw ``decided cubistical tendencies'' in the artist's work. A current observer of the Canadian art scene maintains there is an abstraction, which became ``central to the artist's conception.'' For me, ``The Jack Pine'' represents a natural strength and boldness that Canadians still regard as characterizing their land.
In the spring of 1917 Thomson informed a fire ranger friend, Mark Robinson, that he had just completed a series of sketches in which he pictorialized 60 successive days of change in the park's weather and countenance.
However much Algonquin Park may change in the future, Tom Thomson, with pictures like ``The Jack Pine'' and ``The West Wind,'' ``Northern Lights,'' ``Petawawa Gorges,'' ``The Morning Cloud,'' and ``Spring Ice'' -- among dozens of other paintings and sketches -- has, to my mind, kept it crystal clean, pure, and private.