A.Y. (Alexander Young) Jackson was born in Montreal in 1882. He was a founding member of the Group of Seven and was recognized during his lifetime for his contribution to the development of art in Canada. His father was an unsuccessful businessman who abandoned his family in 1891, and Jackson dropped out of school at age 12 to help support his family. He found work at a lithography company, became interested in art and informed his mother that he intended to be a professional artist. Georgina Jackson would become her son’s greatest supporter, spending many hours trying to sell his paintings to Montreal galleries.
The Jackson family moved to a spacious lower duplex on Hallowell Street in Westmount in 1904 and this remained the family home until 1922. Jackson studied at the Art Association of Montreal under William Brymner and then, from 1907 to 1909, at the Académie Julian in Paris under Jean-Paul Laurens. After returning to Canada in 1910, Jackson painted The Edge of the Maple Wood in Sweetsburg, Quebec, southeast of Montreal, and this painting would be pivotal to his future. Through the intermediary, J.E.H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris offered to buy the painting in 1913 for two hundred dollars. As a result, Jackson would go to Toronto, meet the other future members of the Group of Seven and receive an offer of patronage from Dr. James MacCallum who constructed the Studio Building, the first pupose-built location for artists. He would continue to live and work there for the next forty years.
During the Second World War, Jackson enlisted in the Canadian infantry and he was wounded in action in France in 1916. While recuperating in England, he was offered the opportunity to become a Canadian War Artist and, from 1917 to 1919, he painted the devastated towns and villages of France and Belgium. Jackson had made several sketching trips to Georgian Bay before the war and, on his return to Canada in 1919, he went to the Algoma region east of Lake Superior with several artist friends. The same year, he was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy.
In 1920, the Group of Seven was formed in Toronto by Lawren Harris, Frank Carmichael, Frank Johnston, Jim MacDonald, Arthur Lismer and Fred Varley. On Jackson’s return from a sketching trip to Georgian Bay, they informed him that he was a founding member. This group of artists was frustrated by the overwhelming influence of old-fashioned European art in Canada and they hoped to establish a uniquely Canadian style of modern landscape painting. In May 1920, their first exhibition opened at the Art Gallery of Toronto and, although it did not receive rave reviews, neither was it panned by the critics. 1920 brought about other significant events in Jackson’s life. His mother—always his greatest backer—died in Montreal. A new group of Montreal painters with many of the same aspirations of the Group of Seven, the Beaver Hall Group, was formed in Montreal and Jackson was asked to be its head. Lastly, he met Anne Savage, one of the group’s members, and they would remain the closest of friends for the following fifty years.
Jackson spent the rest of his active life for the most part in the outdoors, often the wilderness, sketching and painting what he saw. He would make annual trips to the Lower North Shore of the St. Lawrence River, often taking artist friends with him. He made two trips to the Canadian Arctic on a supply ship, the first in 1927 with Dr. Frederick Banting and the second in 1930 with Lawren Harris. He travelled across Canada sketching many times, including to the North West Territories, and promoted Canadian art by accepting public speaking engagements. In 1932, Jackson resigned from the Royal Canadian Academy because he felt they were prejudiced against contemporary painters.
Over the years, the Group of Seven gradually fell apart, mainly due to the death of its older members. In 1933, a new artistic group was formed—the Canadian Group of Painters, which included members of the Group of Seven and the Beaver Hall Group, among others.
In 1955, Jackson left the Studio Building in Toronto to settle near Ottawa and, later, in an apartment in downtown Ottawa. He suffered a stroke in 1968 and, from 1969, was artist-in-residence at the McMichael Canadian Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. He continued to sketch until a year before his death at the age of ninety-one in 1974.