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Tom Thomson. Northern Lights, Spring 1917.

Tom Thomson. Northern Lights, Spring 1917. oil on plywood, overall: 21.4 x 26.4 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. © Art Gallery of Ontario.

What Canadian has been lucky enough, in the north woods on a summer night, to witness the spectacle of the aurora borealis? For some it’s a treasured memory; for others, a yet-to-be-realized ambition.

Painting and guiding in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, artist Tom Thomson encountered the lights several times. In the spring of 1917, one observer saw Thomson consider the display for a long while before returning to his lamp-lit cabin to produce a sketch such as this one. In daylight, Thomson sketched outdoors, but painting a nocturne wasn’t something that could be done on the spot.

This lively little oil painting on plywood, from the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, deftly evokes the glory of the lights and continues a 26-year tradition of reproducing a painting from the collection in The Globe and Mail before Christmas Day. It is one of two by the artist at the AGO: The other, in better condition for travel, is now in Frankfurt, Germany. As of February, it will be displayed in the exhibition Magnetic North, part of a section devoted to Northern Lights iconography in Canadian art.

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There are numerous stories among Indigenous people about the lights, identifying them as the spirits of the dead frolicking in the sky or trying to communicate with the living. Astronomers say the effect is produced by charged particles colliding with gases, but for any viewer, the grandeur of the aurora borealis suggests something otherworldly at play in the sky. At the end of a difficult year, Northern Lights is an image to take us outside ourselves.

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