The writer acknowledges the financial support of the Whyte Museum and its archives for the research associated with the texts in this blog. Opinions in this blog text are the author’s own.
The Whyte Museum in Banff will feature an exhibition entitled Artistry Revealed: Peter Whyte, Catharine Robb Whyte and Their Contemporaries. June 17th to October 21st, 2018. A book, accompanying the exhibition, will be published. The exhibition and publication are supported by the Museum Assistance Program of the Government of Canada.
4. Banff, travels and setbacks
The wedding took place on June 30, 1930, in Concord.[i] The couple drove to Banff in Catharine’s car, a Packard Roadster, arriving in early August, intending to make their home there. At first lodging at Peter’s parents, they spent much of the summer sketching in the mountains, at Yoho, and in early September registered as guests at the Lake O’Hara Lodge. Here they spent a couple of weeks sketching with J.E.H. MacDonald. They then engaged in some arduous hiking. They also began planning the building of their house and studio which would be completed in May of 1931. In early 1931, They had travelled to Toronto and MacDonald introduced them to Lawren Harris.
In November, Peter was informed that one of his paintings had been accepted for the National Academy of Design exhibition in New York. He had submitted a work to this important exhibition at the insistence of Carl Rungius. Three of his works were also included in the spring exhibition of the Art Association of Montreal in 1932.[ii]
An initial trip in the late autumn of 1931 to Nassau, in the Bahamas, at the invitation of Fred Ambrister, a photographer whom they had met at Lake Louise, proved to be a bit of a disappointment, and the couple were on their way home by January of 1932.[iii] Back in Banff in February, they decided to take on the running of the new Skoki Ski Lodge, receiving guests in the spring of 1932. Re-opening in the spring of 1933, one of their guests, a British mathematician teaching at MIT named Raymond E. Paley, was killed in an avalanche in early April. Peter was devastated by this tragedy and blamed himself. Although an inquiry absolved him of all responsibility, Paley’s death haunted him for the rest of his life. It also ended their ski lodge venture at Skoki.
In the fall of 1933, they were in Hawaii for the winter where they sketched. Early in 1934, still in Hawaii, they purchased two steamer tickets for a round-the-world trip which lasted some eighteen months, taking them to China, Japan, the Dutch East Indies, finally returning to Banff, only to leave again on more travels to Switzerland for skiing, then back to Banff, and on to Hawaii again in 1936. A trip down the West Coast, and to Vancouver Island followed, then another through the Panama Canal, on to Europe for skiing in the Alps again. They were soon sketching in Norway in May and June of 1938. With war threatening in Europe, they returned to Banff by September to spend their first full year in Banff.
Peter’s father passed away in June of 1940. With the war now enveloping Europe, Peter decided in the summer to join the Reserve Army, and took two weeks of basic training in Calgary. He was 35. Over the next five years, Peter’s efforts and hopes of being named an official war artist met with obstacles and disappointment. Disillusioned, he requested his discharge which he received in December of 1944.[iv] Settled back into his life in Banff, he seems to have turned increasingly to alcohol.
Catharine had first remarked on his tendency to depression when they were at art school in Boston. At the beginning of their relationship, in the fall of 1927, she noted in her journal “He gets discouraged though I haven’t quite decided what about. He said he couldn’t speak good English and I wouldn’t understand. He wants to go to China; also says he’s never going to marry for you can do better work that way, which I was glad to hear. I bet him he would be famous within ten years and he bet not.”[v] Catharine always seems to have had more confidence in him than he had in himself, believing in his superior talent. Elsewhere, she says: “He told me what he is planning to do: get a good foundation and then go back to Canada and start a school of art in Banff, and later get children to work with him and teach them, for he said he wished he’d had that, for people don’t even have faith in him now and think he does it for fun. I’ll bet Peter could do it. There is a lot to him.”[vi]
In a letter to Catharine in January of 1929, Peter confided in Catharine. “Tomorrow I will be twenty-four. Do you know, Catharine, I have never had a birthday party, not even when I was little? Someday, when I am back from our trip, can’t we have a nice little party, just so I can say I had one? This must sound a bit childish, but there were so many things I couldn’t have when I was small and the others in our family did have, I often dreamed of doing them when I was older, just to even up things.”[vii] The statement has more to do with his sense of being a neglected middle child.
It is interesting to note Catharine’s comments on a self-portrait he did in 1932, while she was away from Banff for a few days. Noting that during Banff Indian Days that year he had made three good sketches of the Indian camp and an Indian portrait, she adds: “He also painted a self-portrait and it’s the saddest looking thing I’ve ever seen.”[viii] The rough self-portrait sketch, unfinished, shows his head mostly in shadow, with an unusually large right ear. The face is lacking that quiet smile which one often notices in photographs of him at that time.
Over the next decade, after his discharge from the Air Force in 1944, Peter’s mental health continued to be cause for concern. But he nevertheless was able to keep his level of activity up, having decided to submit some of his works to the Art Association of Montreal in 1947, some fifteen years after first submitting to that exhibition. These were exhibited and one of the English language papers singled out “a striking composition of mountains by Peter Whyte.” On his visit to Banff that year, Fred Brigden suggested Peter and Catharine submit works to the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists exhibitions in 1948. But another opportunity presented itself when Clare Bice visited Banff in mid-September and was introduced to them by their mutual friends George and Kathleen Daly Pepper. Bice asked to borrow some of their sketches for an exhibition at the London Public Gallery. The offer was accepted and the exhibition was sent off in March of 1948. It was well received and travelled to a number of Ontario galleries, including Hart House. The sketches were also exhibited in Concord.
Catharine’s letters to her mother at this time began to mention Peter’s condition. In November of 1947, they declined an invitation to spend Christmas in Concord, with Catharine writing “I know it is wiser to stay home for a few months until Peter really feels better.” In September of 1948, she writes that “A lot of his trouble is emotional,” adding later that “He gets very tense when he is troubled or worried about something. It came to a head two weeks ago, and that caused him to be sick.” In May of 1949, she writes that “the worry and strain of the last few years since he left the Air Force have taken an awful lot out of him, and every time he gets feeling a bit better, maybe gets a picture out he wants to paint on, he gets slapped down again. Some people might have ended up by having a nervous breakdown under the circumstances but luckily it hasn’t been that, but worry is bound to tell on a person some way…”
Physically, there was some transformation as well. He was balding and had gained a lot of weight due to being less active than he had been in the 1930s. Their physician, Dr Duncan MacKenzie, suggested that part of the problem might stem from his strict Scottish Presbyterian upbringing, all three boys “having difficulties adjusting themselves now.” All of them were manifesting problems with alcohol. “Dr MacKenzie,” she writes, “thinks Pete has lost a bit of confidence in himself…” He recommended Peter see a Doctor in Vancouver, and the couple decided to take a brief holiday in Victoria, “the first real holiday of this sort we have had since before the war.” Their visit to Dr Davidson in Vancouver resulted in the recommendation that if he could learn to relax, the anxiety and tension might be alleviated. There is no mention of alcoholism in Catharine’s correspondence of the time. But Peter’s addiction was common knowledge in Banff. Close friends were aware of it too, and it seems their good friend Murray Adaskin may have communicated the situation to Lawren Harris, soliciting advice, which was duly given.
Back in Banff, they spent some time in July at Moraine Lake where Catharine observed:
“We finally got up here. It is the sort of place we seem to like best and Pete seems more relaxed. It’s so quiet, the scenery lovely and the atmosphere informal. This is the first summer since the first one nineteen years ago when we haven’t had to plan to be back to see this person or that. It seems funny but it is so.”
Clearly, the constant interruptions at home in Banff, the responsibilities and demands on him were not conducive to his peace of mind. Nevertheless, throughout this time, there were sketching trips, and Peter’s work shows no sign of diminishing powers. He was an artist who kept his personal feelings out of his work, other than an obvious affection for his subject matter.
A few years later, Peter was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes and these were successfully operated on in 1953 and in 1957. Peter’s state of mind may have improved somewhat as Catharine no longer mentions it in her letters. Nevertheless, he was visually impaired because of his cataracts for much of the 1950s. Between surgeries, he could only work a few hours a day.
I have stressed Peter’s condition over the 1950’s and 1960’s since his productivity decreased during that time. Catharine was much affected by his condition because they always painted together when away from Banff. But in Banff, her obligations as a hostess, and constant interruptions limited her own output.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Peter and Catharine were actively planning their Foundation, and the building of a combined library, archives and gallery building. Peter would not live to see the institution they had planned together and died on 3rd of December 1966. The building was officially opened in 1968.
Lawren Harris, writing to Catharine in April of 1949, had suggested Peter had “the equipment, the technique, the talent to do far better work than he has ever done” provided he left Banff, adding that Banff was “a recreation and sports center primarily with nice townsfolk but no real interest in creative ferment and stimulation.”[ix] The establishment of the Wa-Che-Yo-Cha-Pa Foundation (later renamed the Peter and Catharine Whyte Foundation) made certain that there would be a permanent home in Banff for “creative ferment and stimulation.”
Concluding a brief essay on Peter and Catharine’s work in 1988, their nephew Jon Whyte regretted the fact that neither had left “the legacy of a growing aesthetic vision that seemed so attainable in the early 1930s.”[x] An interesting point, to be sure, and one to which one might hastily agree. But that would perhaps be regretting intentions they did not have. I am not sure either of them would have had such regrets. Perhaps Peter might have. His predisposition to despondency might have suggested failure, but his achievement as a painter was perhaps less a result of his lack of a “growing aesthetic vision” than a chronic lack of self-esteem. He never really recovered from the tragic death of Raymond Paley in 1933. Added to this was a desire to travel in the mistaken belief that self-fulfilment might come in an escape to an unexplored territory. But he could not escape from Banff, to which he always returned. The mountains give him a sense of place, inspired him, but they also closed him in. His academic training and his preferred subject matter may have limited the growth of his aesthetic vision. In that sense, the emulation of established figures such as Rungius and Browne was a handicap, presenting an alternate idea of success. Others, such as Lawren Harris thought him capable of moving on to new avenues of exploration, and a notion of success that he did not share.
There is in Jon Whyte’s statement an underlying premise that can also be questioned. What exactly does a “growing aesthetic vision” entail? Who determines or quantifies that growth? What are the criteria? All too often the premise reflects a modernist paradigm where progress and movement determine relevance or significance. The achievements of many other artists have been diminished by the application of an aesthetic that was not in accordance with their own ambitions as expressed in the work they produced.
Such is the case with Walter J. Phillips, a friend of the Whytes, who had moved to Banff in the late 1940s, having taught at the Banff Summer School of the Arts since 1940. Douglas Cole questioned Phillips’ marginalization as well. In a lecture on the relationship between Phillips and the mainstream of Canadian art, Cole suggests that his “personality, media, locality and artistic content and style” created boundaries for him. He further posits that his life and character were “not such as lend themselves to mythic treatment,” in comparison, say, to Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, and A.Y. Jackson.
A similarity can be found with Peter and Catharine Whyte. While Phillips’ chosen media of watercolour and the colour woodcut further limited his reputation in comparison to artists who worked in oil, Cole adds that he did not produce “large and finished canvasses” which could be considered as major works. Again, here is a similarity with the Whytes, at least in the relative lack of big canvases. As far as locality was concerned, Phillips lived in Winnipeg, Calgary and finally Banff, away from metropolitan centres where “mainstream” art activities were more likely to occur. In Canada, that meant Toronto and Montreal. Phillips’ subjects and style were also mentioned by Cole as limitations to his reputation. Here again, a parallel can be drawn with the paintings of Peter and Catharine Whyte. Cole also notes that Phillips “clung to an older (and … no less valid) definition of beauty” and there again we recognize one more thing the Whytes and Phillips shared. Finally, Cole cites James Ackerman in stating that modern criticism gives priority to “the forces that make for change in art” and these are “praised more warmly than those that make for stability.”[xi]
That so many fine artists are excluded from the mainstream according to “the forces that make for change” is a matter of fact. When we examine the decades of the 1930s and the 1940s in Canada, we are dealing primarily with the aftermath of the Group of Seven in its expansion as the Canadian Group of Painters, followed by the post-war flowering of abstraction in the 1950s and the 1960s.
But Banff being Banff, the East came to the mountains, at least on holiday. If you lived in Banff in the 1940s, you could get to know a number of notable Canadian artists who came to Banff every summer to teach at the developing Banff School of the Arts. A summer sketching camp in 1933 led by British-born Calgary artist A.C. Leighton had been invited to join the University of Alberta Department of Extension’s initiative, creating the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1935. Another British-born artist, H.G. Glyde arrived in Canada to teach drawing at the Provincial Institute of Technology, becoming head of the Art Department the following year. He was also head of the painting division of the Banff School of Arts, a position he would hold until 1966.
The Canadian artists invited to teach the summer painting classes in Banff in 1940 were André Biéler, Arthur Lismer and Walter J. Phillips, the latter joining Glyde as a regular instructor. There followed Charles Comfort, George Pepper, A.Y. Jackson, J.W.G. Macdonald, and others. It would seem that the connections of the Whytes with these artists were purely social, although a number would become good friends. Perhaps closest among them, along with Walter J. Phillips who moved to Banff in 1948, were George Pepper and his wife Kathleen Daly Pepper.
I started this essay with a personal memory of Banff from the short time I lived there, so it seems appropriate to conclude with another. The Foundation’s building had opened in 1968, just four years before I was hired as the art curator in September of 1972. One of my fondest memories and one that has never left me was the afternoon tea ritual in the afternoon. A tea cart was rolled down a back hallway, and from an open door, tea and cookies were served to guests comfortably seated in a room warmed by a gas fireplace, now called the Swiss Guides Room. Also in that room were some paintings from the modest collection, consisting mostly of works by Peter and Catharine Whyte and the artists they knew and loved. There would inevitably be Peter’s Lake O’Hara of 1935 and his Bow Lake from the Summit of 1945, and one of his works from the Columbia Icefields. One or two of the Stoney portraits done by Peter or Catharine would hang there too, or in the staircase on the way down to the Gallery from the front entrance. Also, in pride of place, near the fireplace, was Aldro T. Hibbard’s Mount Biddle at Lake O’Hara of 1924-25. Often, George Pepper’s large forest landscape was featured as well.
The tea and home-made cookies offered to museum visitors were a reflection of the hospitality extended to visitors for so many years by Catharine in her home a stone’s throw away. Another memory for me, of course, was tea and cookies with Catharine at the kitchen table in that memory-filled home. But I was not in Banff long enough to get to know her well.
At the beginning of Joan Murray’s August 1977 interview with Catharine, she modestly replied to Joan’s question “How do you feel about being an artist” with “I’m not a real artist; that’s the trouble, I’m really not.” And she goes on to say
“The trouble was that when we first started painting, Pete and I painted very much the same way. We used the same paints, with the same colour; the palette was the same, the same size canvas; same type of subject.”
One could, of course, disagree with Catharine about whether or not she was a real artist. Given the paintings she left behind, most people would. We might also disagree with her belief that Peter was the “real” artist.
Their place in the context of Canadian art is a difficult one to determine. Who were their peers? They had many friends and acquaintances made over the years, but these were more often social. An interesting document from 1945, annotated by Catharine in 1949, contains short comments about the artists they knew (or with whose work they were most familiar).[xii] But they did not exhibit with them, apart from Peter’s participation in the large Art Association of Montreal’s spring exhibitions of 1932 and 1947. They did not attend these exhibitions and they were not members of any of the eastern Canadian art societies, including the Canadian Group of Painters formed in 1933. This meant that there work remained unknown with the exception of the successful touring exhibition organized by Clare Bice in 1948-49. They did not attend the Kingston Conference held in 1941organized by their friend André Biéler since Peter had by then enlisted in the Armed Forces.
Peter and Catharine remained relative outsiders to Canadian art’s system, which Lisa Christiansen so clearly describes in her essay in the book that accompanies the exhibition. They did not really see themselves as part of it, perhaps because of their relative isolation, their special subject matter, and a worldview which always crossed borders naturally and easily. The international destination that was Banff always defined their world and their place in it, as much as their many travels abroad. But Banff for much of the year was an isolated community. That isolation made their works less present and less familiar to the broader Canadian art public. Their physical and spiritual distance from Toronto and Montreal meant that they were out of the mainstream.
This is not necessarily to the detriment of an appreciation of their work today. Their work must be considered on its own merits. A comparison of their work to that of their contemporaries, many of them more “modern,” re-enforces their unique contribution, which is above all, a celebration of place.
Canadian art history is under constant revision and correction. Strong western voices, past and present, are constantly emerging and are celebrated, and with the emergence of strong western voices, not least of which are the proud voices of Indigenous artists, there is no doubt that more people will come to appreciate the very special and unique contribution Peter and Catharine Whyte made to Canadian art. At the very least, their love of the Rocky Mountains and their generosity of spirit should be celebrated.
© Roger H. Boulet
3 March 2018
Notes to Part II
[i]. Peter’s best man was fellow artist and Boston School student Gardner Cox. Cox had also visited Banff in the summer of 1929 at the same time as Catharine.
[ii]. Works exhibited in 1932 were “Lake O’Hara,” and two sketches “Yoho Valley” and “A Lake in the Rockies”. Works exhibited in 1947 were “Stonies” and “Mountain Solitude.” Evelyn de R. McMann. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts formerly Art Association of Montreal Spring Exhibitions 1880-1970. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988., p. 399.
[iii]. Catharine’s frank reaction to the whole adventure, on their way home aboard the Empress of Australia, was that “We think it best to call this trip a scouting trip; we have learnt a heap about travelling and have decided that the thing to do is to stick to painting Indians and mountains.” In Whyte, p. 86.
[iv]. Caught in the bureaucracy of the Armed forces, when Peter arrived in Ottawa on 30 October he had not been informed of the requirement that he would have had to be in Ottawa the previous 20th of September when the Canadian War Records office had sent the designated “war artists.” For more information on Peter’s service, see Nancy Townshend, A History of Art in Alberta 1905-1970. Calgary: Bayeux Arts Inc., 2005, pp. 63-66.
[v].Whyte, p. 42.
[vi]. Whyte, p. 40.
[vii]. Whyte, p. 52.
[viii]. Whyte, p. 89.
[ix] Lawren P. Harris to Catharine Whyte, 4 April 1949. M36.318.
[x]. Whyte, Jon. “Mountain Painters” in Mountain Glory – The Art of Peter and Catharine Whyte Banff: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, 1988, p. 29.
[xi]. Douglas Cole “Out of the Mainstream: Walter J. Phillips and the Context of Canadian Art” in Manitoba History, Number 3, 1982. (http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/03/phillips_wj.shtml) (28 January 2018).
[xii] Author unknown. The development of painting in Canada, 1665-194. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1945, 65pp. Catharine’s hand-written notes appear in the margins of biography section. 06 D49 Pam.