Thoreau MacDonald, 1901-1989

Thoreau MacDonald took delight in nature
and that delight runs throughout his art



Thoreau MacDonald was born in Toronto in 1901, the only son of J.E.H. MacDonald, later of the Group of Seven, and Harriet Joan Lavis.

As a child, Thoreau MacDonald would accompany his father on sketching trips near High Park and the Humber Valley. As a teenager, Thoreau MacDonald became a farmhand near the family’s home in Thornhill.

Later, when J.E.H. MacDonald moved his studio into Toronto’s famous Studio Building, Thoreau MacDonald met Tom Thomson, who lived behind the studio in a shack. Tom Thomson even painted the young Thoreau MacDonald playing.

It was no wonder, then, that Thoreau MacDonald became interested in art. He started studying under his father and in the early 1920s became an illustrator for a Canadian magazine.

Work as an Illustrator

Thoreau MacDonald’s illustrations appeared in numerous books over the next four decades, including books of poems published by his father. In fact, it has been estimated that he either designed covers, layouts or provided illustrations and drawings to more than 150 books from the early 1920s to the early 1960s.

Many of the books he illustrated fit Thoreau MacDonald’s interest in the natural environment, showing farms, landscapes, country scenes, and animals.

Among the books were several of his own, Woods and Fields (1951), a collection of 70 drawings, and Birds and Animals (1968), another collection of drawings.

Thoreau MacDonald was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters (1933) and was a member of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.

Because of his wealth of experience as an artist and illustrator, it made sense that Thoreau MacDonald’s works were included in the silkscreens produced by Toronto’s Sampson-Matthews Ltd. from 1943 to 1963. These silkscreens, many produced under the supervision of A.J. Casson and A.Y. Jackson, were intended to showcase the breadth of Canada’s landscapes and portray everyday life.

Sampson-Matthews Silkscreens

Thoreau MacDonald has seven silkscreens in the Sampson-Matthews catalogue; by comparison, his father had two (See blog post on Sampson-Matthews silkscreen project).

Scenes cover farm life, such as Winter Morning, Winter Evening and The Plough, and wildlife, such as Wild Geese. Others are landscapes.

Throughout the silkscreens and his artworks can be seen the influence of Thoreau MacDonald’s days spent drawing and illustrating books. There are simple lines and scenes have few, if any, embellishments; he painted what he saw and painted it simply. Thoreau MacDonald was also known for living a simple life, maintaining a farm in Thornhill even as suburban sprawl surrounded him.

What comes through in all Thoreau MacDonald’s artwork is its sincerity, something art critics noted during his lifetime.

Thoreau MacDonald had solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario (1967), the Thornhill Public Library (1971), near his farm.

His paintings and drawings are held by the National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, University of Toronto’s Hart House, Queen’s University, Dartmouth College in Halifax, and elsewhere.
Source:  A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker. National Gallery of Canada, Artists in Canada database.