Will the real Tom Thomson stand up (on exam)? Art Gallery of Hamilton exhibition takes a look at how paintings are authenticated

There is a fun test at Hamilton Art Gallery these days. Locate the painting by Tom Thomson. Most people are wrong. I did.

Spotting fake tests is always difficult for me because, being a human being in this fake world, the first place I look at myself is in the mirror. I’m joking. I am not that deep.

Yet no matter how hard I try, my detective skills are generally insufficient. I rarely spot the key clue on “CSI” or “Columbo” or “Antique Road Show”. You mean it wasn’t Colonel Muskrat in the greenhouse with the AK47, as a priceless Ming Dynasty vase spilled in a corner? Ah, the blood splatter pattern; should have seen it.

The “spot the fake” test comes near the start of “Tom Thomson?” The Art of Authentication, ”curated by Tobi Bruce from AGH and Alicia Boutilier from the Agnes Etherington Art Center in Kingston.

Seven of these paintings are authentic works by Tom Thomson. We may or may not be. They are on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.John Rennison / The Hamilton Spectator

It’s a fascinating look at how we verify the authenticity of a work of art, using everything from forensics to the typical subject, elements of style, materials and technique (whether the pigment is Cambridge White, this could be a clue that this is a real Thomson), provenance (a pedigree, of sorts, from previous ownership), signing and more.

My thinking with Tom Thomson’s test was that the wrong one was the one with the greatest expanse of clear, unbroken sky. Tom Thomson’s landscapes are generally so dense with verticals. Even when they’re spare, there’s usually at least one Heroic Pine that dwarfs the skies (which is no small feat, given the might of its skies). And there is this whole dramatic and busy play of color and shape, often obstructing, interrupting and obscuring the horizon line, sometimes eliminating it altogether, although there are exceptions.

No, the clue was in the brushstrokes. I won’t give anything more.

that of Tom Thomson "Jagged lake," Fall 1915 mounted so that people can see the markings on the back of the original piece in front of a life-size portrait of the artist, at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

Tom Thomson is the art legend of the Group of Seven (-ish being the key suffix here as he died before their formation) which also happens to be one of the art world’s most famous cold cases. His presumed drowning death in a canoe accident in 1917 has never been satisfactorily explained, at least not to those who love him surrounded by uncertainty.

It was especially after his death at the age of 39 that his reputation – and his mystique – soared in favor and fascination.

Its turbulent and choppy landscapes expressed an aspect of the wilderness of Canada’s North that had until then been largely overlooked or sprinkled with formal landscape – that aspect being its very soul, its wild and raw majesty. You can feel the wind chasing and the cold in Thomson’s contrasting colors and robust brushstrokes – everything seems to move in his compositions even though the paint, that lush athletic paint, remains still.

I shouldn’t say so far. Along with Thomson, the members of the Group of Seven (not yet formed into a Group) were making similar forays, both in their aesthetic experimentation and in their very reflection on nature. But Thomson sort of became the very figure and the driving force behind what they were doing, in part, one would suppose, because he had such a reputation as an outdoorsman and because of his tragic end.

Tom Thomson: "A snow bank"
Tom Thomson: “A Snow Bank”John Rennison / The Hamilton Spectator

This is how, given this particular stature, Thomson’s work and style became so often imitated, as Bruce and Boutilier point out in the foreword to the show’s program. Counterfeits abound.

With Thomson’s work, the issue of authentication is sometimes complicated by the variety of signatures he uses. TT in the lower right corner was one.

Several years ago, a collector brought a painting, with TT in the corner, to AGH, curious to know if he really had a Thomson in his hands.

Bruce would later talk to Boutilier and she had had a similar experience, and so, from their discussions, the show was born.

The presentation at AGH is dynamically engaging. We can see Thomson’s sketchbooks and the connections between studies and drawings and finished oils, which is a test of authenticity, explains Bruce. Did the artist have sketches of the final work?

Tobi Bruce with a painting brought to him that was originally Tom Thomson's exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.  It has not been authenticated as a Thomson part.
Tobi Bruce with a painting brought to him that was originally Tom Thomson’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. It has not been authenticated as a Thomson part.John Rennison / The Hamilton Spectator

The exhibition examines stylistic features whose absence or poor execution may arouse suspicion. It also traces Thomson’s hard inner journeys – no, not in himself – within Algonquin Park and other haunts. This helps to establish the subject and likely perspectives. And here is told the infamous story of Neil Sharkey who went to jail in the 1960s for selling paintings by Thomas Chatfield under the name Tom Thomson.

This questioning show, which owes a lot to the Canadian Conservation Institute, is an enriching experience from all points of view. It’s an education in many aspects of the art, combined with a detective story, but whether you care about it all or not – and I think you will – there’s just the sheer joy of seeing all of these. Tom Thomson on the wall, many of them from AGH and some borrowed for the occasion.

The show runs until January 2 and admission is free.

Jeff Mahoney is a Hamilton-based journalist and columnist covering culture and lifestyle stories, commentary and humor for The Spectator. Contact him by email: jmahoney@thespec.com

William E. Bennett