Skip to content

Franklin Carmichael

Franklin Carmichael

Franklin Carmichael was born on May 4, 1890 in Orillia, Ontario. Even at a young age, his artistic talents were already apparent, and so his mother enrolled him in both music and art lessons.

As a teenager, Carmichael worked in his father’s carriage making shop as a striper. Decorating the carriages, he practiced his design, drawing and colouring skills.

Frank Carmichael, 1930
Frank Carmichael, 1930

An emerging artist


Though he was primarily famous for his use of watercolours, he also used oil paints, charcoal and other mediums to capture the Ontario landscapes of which he was fond. Besides his work as a painter, he worked as a designer and illustrator, creating promotional brochures, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and stylizing books. Near the end of his life, Carmichael taught in the Graphic Design and Commercial Art Department at the Ontario College of Art (today the Ontario College of Art and Design).

The youngest original member of the Group of Seven, Carmichael often found himself socially on the outside of the group. Despite this, the art he produced was of equal measure in terms of style and approach to the other member’s contributions, vividly expressing his spiritual views through his art.

In 1910, Carmichael arrived in Toronto at the age of twenty and entered the Ontario College of Art. There, he studied under William Cruickshank and George Reid. Among his fellow students was Gustav Hahn.

By 1911, he began working as an apprentice at Grip Ltd. making $2.50 a week. Late in the year, Lawren Harris and J. E. H. MacDonald began sketching together, soon to be joined by Carmichael and his coworkers at Grip, including Arthur Lismer, Tom Thomson and Frank Johnston. By 1913, the excursions also included Frederick Varley and A.Y. Jackson.

Carmichael moved to Antwerp, Belgium in 1913 to study painting at Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Due to the outbreak of World War I, he cut his studies short and returned to his native Ontario in September 1914, rejoining Thomson, Macdonald, Lismer, Varley and Johnston. Staying in Toronto during the war, they struggled in the depressed wartime economy.

During the fall of 1914, he moved into the Studio Building and shared a space with Thomson over the winter.

Carmichael and the members of the group were frustrated by their initial attempts to capture the untouched “savage” land of Canada, with the particular characteristics of the land difficult to capture in the European tradition. Jackson would write that, “after painting in Europe where everything was mellowed by time and human associations, I found it a problem to paint a country in outward appearance pretty much as it had been when Champlain passed through its thousands of rock islands three hundred years before.”

It would be once the group discovered the paintings of Scandinavian landscape that they would begin to move in a coherent direction. According to MacDonald, the Scandinavian painters “seemed to be a lot of men not trying to express themselves so much as trying to express something that took hold of themselves. The painters began with nature rather than with art.”

In 1915, Carmichael married Ada Lillian Went.

Group of Seven


In April 1920, the Group of Seven was established by Jackson, Harris, MacDonald, Lismer, Varley, Johnston and Carmichael. The group held its first exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from May 7 to 27, 1920.

In 1922, Carmichael joined the Sampson-Matthews firm, a printmaking business. He likely worked as head designer under the art directorship of J.E. Sampson.

In 1925, Carmichael, Harris and Jackson ventured to the northern shore of Lake Superior. On the trip, Carmichael opted to use watercolour rather than his usual oil paints. He used watercolour consistently from this point onward, painting some of his most famous works with the medium. After this initial experience, he would return several more times to the lake, including in 1926 and 1928. This area on Lake Superior as well as the Northern shore of Lake Huron in the La Cloche mountains would be consistent themes in his work.

According to writer Peter Mellen, the considerably young Carmichael and A. J. Casson “always remained slightly on the fringes of the Group” due to the age gap between them and the other members. Carmichael, Casson and F. H. Brigden would eventually go on to found the Ontario Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1925.

Theosophy and spiritual influences

The entire group, especially Carmichael, strove to give visual form to spiritual value, with some members drawing on theosophy (an offshoot of transcendentalism) and the spiritualist founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky. Theosophy was “predicated on the centrality of intuition as an inclusive but not exclusive tool, and on an individual, emotive approach to divinity. This divinity was immanent, indwelling, permanently pervading the universe.”

According to the doctrine of theosophy, a northern “spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic renaissance” was to take place in North America, with Canada playing an especially special role because of its northern location. The northern emphasis provided by Theosophy appealed to the Group of Seven*rsquo;s “land-based nationalism,” particularly Carmichael, Lismer and MacDonald. In 1926, Harris published an article, “Revelation of Art in Canada,” that appeared in the Canadian Theosophist. In it, Harris wrote,

We (Canadians) are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity on the growing American race, and we Canadians being closest to this source seem destined to produce an art somewhat different from our Southern fellows, an art more spacious, of a greater living quiet, perhaps of a certain conviction of eternal values. We were not placed between the southern teeming of men and the ample, replenishing North for nothing.


By 1932, he left commercial art and taught as the head of the Graphic Design and Commercial Art Department the Ontario College of Art until his death in 1945. Following the Group of Seven’s disbandment in 1933, Carmichael founded the Canadian Group of Painters, which several members of the Group of Seven would later join. After the split, the artistic strength of the other Group of Seven members seemed to diminish, though Carmichael has been noted (along with Harris) as persisting in his strength.

His fondness for the La Cloche Mountains of Ontario led him to build a log cabin on Grace Lake in 1934–35.

Carmichael died in Toronto on October 24, 1945. He is buried at St. Andrew’s and St. James Cemetery in Orillia, Ontario

Further Reading

Read the full article on Wikipedia.

Full article