The Group of Seven painters--especially Harris and Jackson--were avid proselytizers of their own work, and they and some of their fans developed a set of ideas about its significance that soon turned into a set of still widespread misconceptions about it. Their insistence on the distinct Canadian-ness they aspired to, and the importance of distinct northern Canadian landscapes in their efforts to achieve that distinctness, turned into a general misperception that they were the first artists to paint the Canadian wilds and that their vision of it emerged from a direct contact with those wilds, unhampered by much knowledge of European traditions of painting. That they themselves made so much of their friend Tom Thomson's lack of formal artistic training and his presumed status as a knowledgeable and virile woodsman also contributed to the idea that these artists were inspired almost purely by the spirit of the places they painted--places that represented the true and distinct soul of what it means to be Canadian in ways that were more manly than the prissily over-civilized work of other Canadian artists who were steeped in the traditions of European academies.
In Defiant Spirits, Ross King does a really good job of deflating these peculiar myths. He carefully explore the various art schools the members of the Group attended, many of them in Europe, and finds in their correspondence and elsewhere a large and very specific knowledge of what were then current trends at the cutting edge of art across Europe. He shows how very much the Group's paintings display a knowledge of post-Impressionist artists like Van Gogh and Matisse, and reveals intimate connections between individual paintings by the Group and their specific models and influences. He also discusses a fairly long history of earlier and other artists who painted the landscapes of the Canadian shield, albeit in different styles. In demythologizing the Group, King shows exactly how knowledgable they were, and how dextrously they used their knowledge to create something that was indeed distinctly Canadian--a specifically Canadian and richly meaningful response to what they knew was happening in art internationally.
This is an important book, I think, and one that makes me realize that artists like Thomson, Harris, Jackson, and MacDonald are more important, more interesting, and to be taken more seriously, than I had previously imagined.