Mountains and the Arts: Banff and Whistler

Many are the fine painters in Canada that have aptly and graphically focused on the mountains. The Whyte Museum in Banff was significantly inspired and brought into being by Peter (1905-1966) and Catharine (1906-1979) Robb Whyte in June 16, 1968. The Whyte Museum, since then, has told the tale of the emergence, growth and maturation of Banff and the Rockies, but it has also housed, consistently so, in various forums, the diverse artistic abilities of Peter and Catharine Robb Whyte (their teachers, peers and those who have followed them as interpretive painters of mountains).

I was fortunate to be in Banff for many a week in 2018 when the Whyte Museum did a special exhibition called “Artistry Revealed: Peter Whyte, Catharine Robb Whyte and Their Contemporaries”—the finely published book of the same name is a beauty worth the buying and worth both reading and meditatively painting pondering many a moment.

Those who have some interest in painting and mountains (and in trekking to places where some of the best Canadians have been inspired) should purchase copies of two books by Lisa Christensen: A Hiker’s Guide to the Rocky Mountain Art of Lawren Harris (2000) and The Lake O’Hara Art of J.E. H. MacDonald and Hiker’s Guide (2003). The relationship between Peter-Catharine Robb-Whyte, Lawren Harris, J.E. H. MacDonald and the Group of Seven brings together mountain rambling and high level art. Many are the secrets that the mountains hold from those who lack artistic sensibilities and the Whyte Museum has done much to reveal that which is often concealed to peak baggers.

I was fortunate this past summer to spend lingering time with the fine photographer and longtime resident of Banff, Roy Andersen. Roy was a close friend of Catharine Robb Whyte and many was the story he shared with me about Catharine. It seems a film about her life is in the offing and much awaited. The Whyte Museum also hosted, from June 16–September 2, 2019, “Peter Whyte and Catharine Robb Whyte: An Eclectic Eye for Collecting”—this exhibit, in many ways, highlighted their breadth and renaissance tendencies.

2019 signalled the 40th year since Catharine Robb Whyte died and the Audain Art Museum in Whistler hosted a follow up of sorts to the 2018 exhibit of Peter-Catharine Whyte. The name was the same and the book that told the fuller tale was sold at Audain: Artistry Revealed: Peter Whyte, Catharine Robb Whyte and Their Contemporaries. There is, of course, the more popular biography of Peter/Catharine Whyte, Romance in the Rockies: The Life and Adventures of Catharine and Peter Whyte (2003), but for those who are keen to delve and dig deeper into the weaving together of mountains and significant Canadian painters, the books mentioned above are more comprehensive. Some of the letters that passed between Peter and Catharine Robb-Whyte and Lawren Harris (housed in the Whyte Museum) reveal much about a significant phase of Canadian mountain life and the arts (where, indeed, peaks and people meet).

Ron Dart at the Emily Carr statue in Victoria

I might add, by way of conclusion, that from September 21, 2019 to January 19, 2020 the Audain Art Museum will be hosting a special showing entitled, Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing-French Modernism and the West Coast. It was when Emily Carr was in France from 1910–1911 that her style took a decided and more creative turn that, in some ways, birthed the Emily Carr of Canadian and West Coast myth and legend (Carr being a creative interpreter of the forests that matched Lawren Harris, Peter-Catharine’s commitment to mountain life and culture). And, Lawren Harris was a faithful correspondent with Emily Carr also. It is fitting he spent many a year on the West Coast, as Harris, Carr and Peter-Catharine were bearers and ambassadors of creative and imaginative Canadian outdoor and mountain culture.

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