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Born in Romance

Banff’s Whyte Museum turns 50

By Steven Ross Smith

Peter grew up in Banff, the son of a pioneering family (then the “Whites”). His father, Dave White, first worked for the CPR and then in 1894 acquired, through an unpaid debt, a hardware, grocery and clothing outlet on the main street. Over time he expanded it to be the town’s main department store and purchased additional properties close by. The White Block still stands today, housing several stores and apartments.

Catharine Robb grew up on an estate in a wealthy family in Concord, Massachusetts, daughter of Edith Morse and Russell Robb, a successful engineer and businessman. Arts, culture, community and philanthropy were a significant part of her education and upbringing.

Despite disparate lineages and locales, their interests in making art led Catharine and Peter to meet as fellow students at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Perhaps their differences—Peter, the outdoorsy, rural man, and Catharine, refined, cosmopolitan and stylish—were the attraction. In a journal entry from that time, cited in Chic Scott’s book Mountain Romantics: The Whytes of Banff, Catharine writes, “Pete is… a perfect, blue-eyed, innocent boy, kind and good, and ought to paint well some day. He has improved more than anyone else in the class.” They courted in the late 1920s, then married in Concord in 1930 and settled in Banff. By the time of their marriage they were using the “Whyte” spelling of Peter’s family name.

In 1931 Catharine and Peter built a home on a large family property between Banff’s main street—a wide dirt trail—and the Bow River. It was a log house with studios, constructed of pine and spruce cut in the Morley foothills east of town. From their house they looked across the glacier-fed Bow and through the trees to the mountains.

It wasn’t in their minds then, but by 1968 Catharine and Peter would endow an institution dedicated to art and community that would be built right next door to their rustic home. It would become known as The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, and in 2018 it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Wa-Che-Yo-Cha-Pa—“Where the good, the wise and the beautiful come together in harmony.”

“Can you just imagine Peter and Catharine sitting in their log house thinking about what this would look like,” says Anne Ewen, current Museum Curator of Art and Heritage, “and then actually following through with the idea, creating this amazing museum for the people of Banff and for the world?”

That vision took hold in 1958 when Catharine and Peter created a foundation to gather resources to create an arts and culture centre. The foundation was named “Wa-Che-Yo-Cha-Pa” by their friend, Stoney band chief Walking Buffalo (George McLean). Catharine interpreted the name as “Where the good, the wise and the beautiful come together in harmony.” The foundation would be endowed through Catharine and Peter’s substantial financial assets and with their considerable collection of art and artifacts.

The Whytes’ early Banff days took them into the rugged mountain landscape with pencils, brushes, paints and easels to capture the magnificent terrain in all seasons. They were sometimes accompanied by other artists, including Belmore Browne, Nicholas de Grandmaison, Carl Rungius and Walter Phillips, who became resident artist at the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1940. Other visitors included Group of Seven members J.E.H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer and A.Y. Jackson. A viewer can see, in some of the Whytes’ own paintings and drawings, the relationship of their work to the past and to the emerging style of the times. Their outdoor painting locations included their neighbouring landscapes such as at Lake O’Hara, Bow Lake and near Jasper. And they produced elegant portraits of Stoney Nakoda friends.

“Peter and Catharine were excellent painters,” says Anne Ewen. “We have [in the Museum collection] over 1,000 of their drawings and paintings. Their artwork was as good as the Group of Seven in some instances. The work they did when they were at the Boston Museum School was brilliant. Their drawings were phenomenal. Their portraiture is exquisite. They had training that prepared them for the challenges they would meet, whether painting in the mountains or working in the studio.”

Some 140 of the Whyte’s works have been on display at the Whyte Museum this summer and early fall in the exhibition “Artistry Revealed: Peter Whyte, Catharine Robb Whyte and Their Contemporaries.” The show is entirely drawn from the Whyte’s collection and also includes 29 images by their contemporaries—painters Rungius, MacDonald and A.C. Leighton among them.

Complementing the exhibition is a book with over 100 images—paintings and sketches by Peter and Catharine and others. A smattering of photographs capture the couple in their beloved mountain terrain. The text includes an introduction by Anne Ewen, close “readings” of many paintings by art historian Monique Westra and an essay on the legacy of Peter and Catharine by writer Lisa Christensen.

The Whytes produced work of extraordinary quality and volume. But artists aren’t always the best promoters.

The works in the exhibition are distinctive. Peter’s Athabasca Glacier, chosen for the show’s title wall and also for the book cover, is a gorgeous image. A gnarly, witchy, ancient tree in blacks and browns dominates the foreground to the left of the frame, and the centred glacier—a river of ice, white and blue—seems to flow toward the viewer. Catharine’s larches, as in Mount Temple and Larches, glow a golden yellow and dance against a radiant blue sky. And her portraits capture character and depth from her subjects, whether Peter’s uncle John Donaldson Curren or Dan Wildman, a Stoney friend resplendent in headdress and bear teeth necklace.

Peter’s large painting (74 cm × 165 cm) Untitled (Stoney Encampment) stands out, with its high plains panoramic width, the 20 tipis circling into the distance and back, its colours ranging from reds to greys through a many-hued palette. It offers a glimpse into what appears to be a tranquil social gathering of resident Indigenous people in a flat green field with mountains jagging the distant horizon, an image from another time.

In her essay Christensen asks, “So why, today, is their work largely unknown outside of Banff and generally unrecognized within the art world?” The Whytes produced an extraordinary volume and quality of work and were well connected—but artists are not always the best promoters of their own work. Perhaps, because of Catharine’s wealth, there was no pressing need to pursue sales. Maybe modesty was a factor.

As well, Peter and Catharine had interests outside their art making: Peter loved to ski and photograph; Catharine was a gracious host and community builder. People would often drop by their home and she would interrupt her painting to make tea and be hospitable. They welcomed friends, family, fellow artists, skiers, guides and Stoney Nakoda citizens. Their log house can still be visited and toured on the Whyte Museum property. For whatever reason, the most focused appreciation of their work remains predominantly in Banff.

The celebratory exhibition received a National Museum Assistance Program grant that enabled restoration of some paintings, new frames for others, digital interpretation included in the exhibition, and the book. “[The grant was] a way of validating that this is a really important project,” says museum director Vincent Varga, “and it is a game changer for this institution to get this kind of funding. Peter and Catharine deserve that kind of recognition.”

Sadly Peter passed away in 1966 before seeing the construction of the Whyte Museum. Catharine, going on alone, rolled up her sleeves and pushed the foundation’s plan forward. In a 1967 ceremony she wielded the shovel that broke the soil, and in 1968 the Whyte building opened, containing a gallery, a library and an historical archive.

Catharine’s close friend and ski coach in the years after Peter’s passing, photographer Roy Andersen, attended the opening. He remembers Catharine well.

“She loved her home, her cabin, she loved the mountains. She supported Peter and his painting and she sacrificed her own time. She was always a lady, and never lost her Boston, New England accent. She was humble and appreciative and so polite.” These qualities attracted people to her—local citizens and individuals in high places.

“We knew that Catharine had a good relationship with Pierre Elliott Trudeau,” says Anne Ewen, who, during her first stint working at the Whyte in the late 1970s had come to know Catharine. “I was her guest when she received the Order of Canada, and we were standing in the middle of the room at the reception and he came running over and said to her ‘I’m not here all evening, but I knew you were in town so I just thought I’d come over and say hello.’”

The Trudeau story does not end there, as Ewen recounts: “We were working in the archive one weekend. We found three boxes, labelled the ‘fugitive boxes,’ and in them we found a lovely letter from Margaret Trudeau thanking Catharine for the tour, for showing her their garden, that it was a lovely house and that she’d love to have a log house sometime in her life.”

They found another note, a formal invitation for July 5, 1973, inviting Catharine to have lunch with Pierre and Margaret along with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the Palliser. “Yet Catharine never fawned over important people,” says Ewen. “She always looked for good qualities in people. She treated everyone the same.”

Today at the entrance to the “Artistry Revealed” exhibition there hangs a framed letter from Justin Trudeau congratulating the Whyte—an institution founded before he was born—on its anniversary.

The existing collection holds more than 6,000 paintings, drawings and historical items concisely listed in Chic Scott’s book: “In the archives can be found 1,300 motion pictures, 1,100 sound recordings, 225 linear metres of textual records, 5,500 books and about half a million photographs.” And the heritage collection contains objects as diverse as packer boxes and a saddle from the days when horses were used to explore the backcountry; a guide’s 1896 Enfield rifle; First Nations buckskin jackets and beaded moccasins; CPR silverware; an 18th century Japanese ceremonial sword; even a helicopter.

Such a rich cultural repository has many functions in a place like Banff, a town in a national park, population close to 9,000, which draws four million tourists annually. As Varga says, “Contemporary museums are a destination, they’re a cultural hub, they serve the community and a tourist population. A huge percentage of visitors come here to see the mountains. How can we more effectively reach out to those people so that when they get here they want to come to the museum? We’re very fortunate that we have the Peter and Catharine Whyte Foundation, and Banff being the kind of economy that it is. If it were a community of 9,000 anywhere other than in a place like this, it would be darn tough.”

Peter and Catharine Whyte could not have envisioned the Banff of today—the myriad hotels, the pricey local and chain restaurants, the ubiquitous souvenir shops, the summer traffic jams of cars, buses and motorhomes. Nor could they have foreseen the expanded building and complex program of exhibitions, talks, tours and other activities that occur at the Whyte Museum year round. Amid such growth, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and those connected with it strive to fulfill and further the vision of Catharine and Peter—that of “Wa-Che-Yo-Cha-Pa—where the good, the wise and the beautiful come together in harmony.”

Steven Ross Smith is the 2018–2019 Banff Poet Laureate and is known for his fluttertongue poems.

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