Born in Toronto, he studied there and in the United States, and at first worked as a commercial artist. An official war artist, 1917-18, he participated in the first exhibition of the Group of Seven in 1920. With others of the Group, he captured on canvas the lonely grandeur of the Canadian north land, thus ending Canadian dependence on Europe for artistic inspiration and inaugurating our first national art movement. Johnston, who was principal of the Winnipeg School of Art, 1921-24, also taught in Toronto, 1927-29, and from then until 1940 conducted summer classes on Georgian Bay.
The Group of Seven
The Group of Seven was an early 20th-century nationalist art group whose members set out to create a distinctly Canadian art that reflected the character of the land and the people. The original group included Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and F.H. Varley.
The artists were inspired by the nationalist romantic art of Sweden and Norway, but they first found the material for their artistic expression in Algonquin Park. The painters' asserted that the colour, atmosphere, and roughness of the sparsely inhabited northern landscape had a determining influence on the growth of a Canadian identity. They posted that art had an essential role to play as Canada grew into full nationhood.
The membership of the group changed over the years. Frank Johnston left in 1921, and A. J. Casson joined the group in 1926. Edwin Holgate of Montréal, Québec, was invited to join in 1929, as was LeMoine FitzGerald of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1932. Many other independent artists from across Canada, including Canada's first female painter Emily Carr, exhibited with the Group of Seven. The art and ideas of the individual members greatly influenced artists such as Emily Carr and Carl Schaefer. In 1933 the group expanded into a national organization, the Canadian Group of Painters.
The original Group of Seven belonged to the (North American) Realism school, although most of the artists were essentially grounded in other styles, and later moved on to a more dramatic, expressionistic style. The achievement of the Group of Seven is put in focus by what Arthur Lismer said about Jackson's "The Edge of the Maple Wood": "It created a feeling of settlement and permanency about a land of which my first impressions were impermanent and transient."
Desiring to follow his own artistic path, Frank Johnston formally left the Group of Seven in 1924. A few years later, after consulting a numerologist, he changed his first name by taking elements from Frank and Hans to form Franz, which was deemed to be more harmonious and served to denote his new path as an artist. Johnston had worked as a commercial designer early in his career and had a finely developed sense of composition, choosing scenes with a sense of their inherent balance and beauty.
Some of his best work was done in winter in northern Ontario, and he became renowned for his exquisite effects of light in these scenes, such as in this striking woodland view. The banks of the stream are lit up by rays of sun, creating a fine contrast between the dazzling highlights and the shadowed areas full of delicate, luminous blues, and turquoises, as well as the dark, still water. Johnston adds to the effect with shimmering reflections across the surface of the water, the far forests studded with the colours of the Fauvists of Europe and the echo of Tom Thomson in the sky, and the result is an aesthetic delight.
Wilds of Algonquin - 1929 14 x 18 in. Oil on board