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Defiant Spirits

The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven

by Ross King

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modern (late 19th century to 1945), canadian
list price: $36.95
also available: Paperback eBook
category: Art
published: 2010
publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
  • Winner, Heritage Toronto Award
  • Short-listed, CAA Lela Common Awards for Canadian History
  • Short-listed, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
  • Short-listed, Writer's Trust of Canada Non-Fiction Prize
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A Globe 100 Book of the Year for 2010.


A Governor General’s Award–winning author recounts the turbulent years during which a group of young Canadian painters went from obscurity to international renown.


Beginning in 1912, Defiant Spirits traces the artistic development of Tom Thomson and the future members of the Group of Seven, Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley, over a dozen years in Canadian history. Working in an eclectic and sometimes controversial blend of modernist styles, they produced what an English critic celebrated in the 1920s as the "most vital group of paintings" of the 20th century. Inspired by Cézanne, Van Gogh and other modernist artists, they tried to interpret the Ontario landscape in light of the strategies of the international avant-garde. Based after 1914 in the purpose-built Studio Building for Canadian Art, the young artists embarked on what Lawren Harris called "an all-engrossing adventure": travelling north into the anadian Shield and forging a style of painting appropriate to what they regarded as the unique features of Canada’s northern landscape.


Sumptuously illustrated, rigorously researched and drawn from archival documents and letters, Defiant Spirits constitutes a "group biography," reconstructing the men’s aspirations, frustrations and achievements. It details not only the lives of Tom Thomson and the members of the Group of Seven but also the political and social history of Canada during a time when art exhibitions were venues for debates about Canadian national identity and cultural worth.

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Editorial Reviews

"If Ross King were a geologist, he'd have made millions striking untapped rivulets of gold or oil in overlooked places. Instead, as an art historian, he mines nuggets of obscure information that he forges into page-turners about Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Manet and, in this new book, the Group of Seven."

— Montreal Gazette

"In Defiant Spirits, King gets at much more than what the Group of Seven paintedóhe discloses who the men were and brings them to life."

— Eye Weekly

"King's writing is characterized by clarity, compassion, and humanist intelligence...The personal, political, and aesthetic obstacles they encountered are described here with sympathy, so that we feel we've actually met these individuals -- the goal of any good biography."

— Library Journal

"It's to dispel the myth of [uncultured artists] that Ross King has risen to the challenge of writing yet another book on the gang. It is a real collective biography, focusing on the personalities of the painters, their influences and the swirling currents of nationalism, theosophy and Whitmanesque transcendentalism they were caught up in."

— Toronto Star

"King's book does an excellent job of exploring the roles of these visionary individuals in the shaping of an artistic cultural identity."

— Publishers Weekly

"With Defiant Spirits, King, as in his other biographical art histories, takes on big subjects, big personalities and big events and weaves them into a concise, entertaining narrative. He is a master researcher and biographer and this book serves as an informative introduction to an important era in Canadian art history."

— Telegraph Journal

"King, an admirably industrious researcher and deft writer, already much admired for his books on the Renaissance, splendidly braids together the lives of eight painters, the seven members of the Group and Tom Thomson. His skill and intelligence make Defiant Spirits an essential addition to any library of Canadian art history."

— National Post

"King's book functions spectacularly, both as compelling biography and (more importantly) as internationally contextualized art history, and the thoroughness and quality of its research are sure to make it a standard reference work for students (of all stripes) of Thomson and the Group."

— Canadian Literature

"Ross King's Defiant Spirits not only situates Tom Thompson, A.Y. Jackson, et al. in their historical contexts, it also conveys their emerging artistic sensibilities and their desire to create an authentic Canadian art, even in the face of institutional hostility."

— Quill & Quire

"[Defiant Spirits] is a paradigm shift. With his usual spirited prose and faultless research, King makes internationalists out of the Group of Seven, showing them responding and reacting to the art of their day and the socio-political upheavals brought about by the First World War. These were ambitious artists and King never lets them settle into the comforts of cottage life and Canadiana."

— Canadian Art

"Ross King's collective look at the Group of Seven not only paints vivid portraits of the individual artists, but it reaffirms their place in Canadian cultural history and offers a clearer understanding of what it was like to persist in artistic activity."

— Globe & Mail
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About the Author

Ross King

Ross King, born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, is the Canadian author of three books on Italian history and art: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power and Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, which won the 2001 Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Adult Nonfiction. His study of French Impressionism, The Judgment of Paris, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in Canada. He lives in England, near Oxford.
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