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MANSIONS TO MOUNTAINS:
IN CONVERSATION WITH
CATHARINE ROBB WHYTE

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An Whyte Museum Exhibition

JULY 15 – JANUARY 22, 2022
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Introduction

The exhibition re-engages with the remarkable life of Catharine Robb Whyte from a fresh perspective. Instead of relying solely on scripted construal’s from curatorial, Catharine’s story is voiced through uninhibited diary entries to her fictious friend Buz (1921 – 1928), duty-bound, yet loving letters to her mother Edith Morse Robb (1929 – 1962), and from her ambitious annual Christmas messages (1963 – 1978). Along with her words, Catharine’s legacy is observed through her renderings and canvases, as well as archival photographs and personal artifacts.

 

From drawings and sketches, it is clear that as a child Catharine enjoyed her creative pursuits. Her coloured pencil drawings record household objects, interior and exterior scenes. Prolific childlike floral sketches were likely influenced by the extensive gardens at their Concord home and the bouquets her mother Edith Morse Robb arranged throughout.  

At an early point in either 1913 or 1914, Catharine received a small watercolour set as a Christmas present. It seems she tested the medium infrequently as only eighteen are registered in the Whyte collection. However, along with numerous renderings in pastels and graphite her attempts do prove an inclination to explore various mediums and techniques.

 

Catharine’s creativity was encouraged by her parents who both entertained and supported many regional artists. Among others, they introduced their daughter to internationally trained and celebrated artist Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts whose Concord residence was an artistic hub. There she hosted exhibitions of select high-calibre artists and taught intermittent art appreciation and practice classes for amateur enthusiasts like Catharine. Later at the prestigious Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island, where Catharine studied from September 1921 until June 1924, her artistic advancement is observed in rhythm studies where the grade marks of A and A+ were frequently awarded. Catharine’s enrolment at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the autumn of 1925 was a decisive confirmation of her artistic desires. The following summer, she wrote Buz of her intention to become a great artist. As we know, those ambitions may not have achieved global recognition but her paintings do rank high alongside artists of her time.

 

Along with solid grounding and a formal education, Catharine’s horizons were expanded through varied trips to foreign places. She first visited Banff with her family in 1916, followed by a grand tour of Europe from June 9, 1924 until the 2nd of October. The Robb’s spent frequent summers at Seal Harbour where in 1921 she met the Rockefeller’s and famed American painter John Singer Sargent. In her lifetime, Catharine ultimately traveled to every continent where each destination was memorialized by a pencil or oil sketch and her down-to-earth disposition ingratiated her with individuals from all walks of life.

 

Catharine’s artistic acumen evolved from childish endeavours to adult sophistication with each attempt a lesson for the next. Ultimately her need to nurture and support those less fortunate or to merely enrich her community overshadowed her artistic ambitions. Still in all her actions, she quietly applied the same determination and resolve.

 

While etiquette discourages the reading of an individual’s personal diaries and correspondence, we are grateful for the preservation of Catharine’s letters to Buz, to her Mother and to her many world-wide friends. Insight into the era in which she was raised permeate the pages through subtle innuendo and outspoken commentary.  In her rolling cursive script, Catharine’s life and personality unfolds before us, leaving the reader wanting more.

The language contained in some of the captions is from a previous era and is outdated and offensive.


Unless otherwise identified, all of the photographic images in the exhibition are from the Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. All works of art are by Catharine except the Bosley painting. All items on display are from the collections of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

 
 
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Travelling 1924

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The summer of 1924 was spent traveling abroad, on a grand tour of Europe. Departing from Boston on 9 June 1924, Catharine and her family arrived in Liverpool nine days later. Visits to the National and Tate galleries in London are mentioned in her journal, as well as the British Museum. A number of cathedral visits are also mentioned, including Gloucester, Wells, Salisbury and Winchester. In Holland and Belgium by mid-July, she visited the ague, Haarlem, Amsterdam, Brussels, Brugge and Ghent where she mentions seeing the great Van Eyck altarpiece, The Adoration of the Lamb.


In Paris, the family attended performances of Faust at the Opera and Carmen at the Opéra Comique. The Louvre, Versailles, and Fontainebleau were visited as well as the village of Barbizon where Millet’s studio was located. Back in Paris, there were visits to the Eiffel Tower, the Bois de Boulogne and Montmartre, as well as a dinner at La Tour d’Argent. A motor trip to the Loire Valley afforded some visits to famous châteaux such as Chenonceaux, Amboise, Azay-le-Rideau, Chinon and Ussé. From Tours, they travelled to Nantes and into Brittany, visiting Pont-Aven, Concarneau and Quimper, then on to Mont St-Michel before returning to Paris and visiting the Luxembourg galleries where Catharine noted in her journal there were “some awfully good modern pictures we enjoyed.”


They then traveled to Switzerland by way of Dijon, stopping at Geneva, Lausanne and Lucerne before crossing the border into Italy, visiting Como and Verona. In Venice, they stayed at the famous Hotel Daniele, taking in a performance of Puccini’s La Bohème at the Venice Opera house. The trip continued with a stay in Florence and in Perugia before moving on to Rome where all the major landmarks were visited, as well as the Villa Borghese and the Vatican museums. They finally reached Naples, by way of the Campania, and after a visit to Pompeii they boarded a ship at Naples on 2 October, arriving in New York on 11 October.
 

Catharine’s travel diaries are preserved, along with much of her extensive correspondence at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, providing the primary source for biographical details in this text.

 
 
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Art School

Catharine Robb Whyte Art School

Saturday, November 20, 1926: Dear Buz, I really ought to be doing anatomy but gee how I hate the stuff. It bores me to extinction and I never can settle down to do it.

The Boston School approach focused on the human figure and portraiture. Landscape was not part of the program. Studies began with a solid basis in drawing, first from copies of antique statuary and then perspective practice and still life. Still life marked student’s first foray into painting.

 (SMFA Annual Circular 1926-1927).

 

Afternoons were spent on the theory of design and the theory of colour. Once students achieved satisfactory accomplishment in drawing, they were allowed to enter ‘the Life Class, drawing from the nude model under Mr. Hale” before advancing to “Painting Classes, painting from the head, Mr. Thompson from the half-length figure, nude and draped, and finally from the full-length nude figure, under Mr. Bosley.”  (SMFA Annual Circular 1925-1926)

Rosenfeld, Roslyn, Lucy Jarvis even stones have life, 2016, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, pg.39, WM06.1 R721

 

Life at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) was social. Many of the three hundred students were women and Lucy Jarvis, from Yarmouth, Helen Weld, from Lowell and Catharine (Kay) Robb, from Concord became fast friends. They called themselves the “gang of three.” Throughout their lives, the three would continue to occasionally met and correspond. 

 

 
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Peter and Catharine Whyte

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Banff

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We tried to make the mountains look like mountains. Actually our mountains do look like mountains as compared to a lot of people’s. We knew the structure and had a real feeling for them.

iPad video shown above:

Take a tour of the home
Peter and Catharine Whyte
created together:

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Painting in the Rocky Mountains

Art is a powerful expression of our humanity, and will often live on following the death of its creator as a symbol of legacy, heritage, emotion and a trace of life. 

- Anonymous

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“We began with 11x14” panels. They were too heavy so we got down to 9x11” and they were too small. Couldn’t fit in both the foreground and the height of the mountains. Changed to 10x12” to be able to get foreground too. Had aluminum panels cut and used rubber cement to stick the canvas onto the panel to keep it from bubbling in the sun. That seemed to be our best size for sketching – you could finish it in an hour. Otherwise you never finished.”

Joan Murray interview with Catharine at home in Banff, August 4,1977

More information on the artwork of Peter and Catharine Whyte:

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“There was quite a group of us in Banff: Belmore Browne, Charlie Beil, Nick de Grandmaison, Walter Phillips. And so many visiting artists too: Fred Brigden, A.C. Leighton, Charlie Comfort, H.G. Glyde, George Pepper, Kay Pepper were all here at one time or another, either painting or teaching at the BSFA. Of course we also knew J.E.H.  MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, and A.Y. Jackson.  We were all so busy we weren’t really a community but occasionally we’d drop in on one another …”

Catharine [interview by Joan Murray] featured in Canadian Collector, May/June 1979

 
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Travelling

1978 Christmas letter: Time goes by at a faster clip each year – just wait until you race into your seventies!

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The way we were taught in school influenced the way we saw things. It helped us to see more clearly. It is the edge of the shadow that gives the form and character. We used to refer to it as “turning the edge.” It indicates depth too.

Joan Murray interview with Catharine at home in Banff, August 4,1977

 
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Accomplishments

Catharine once expressed her gratitude for the three different lives she had lived; the intense, socially ordered life in Concord and Boston; the quiet essentially straightforward life of her married life to Pete; and the worldly citizen she became after his death.

- Whyte, Jon, Mountain Glory, The Art of Peter and Catharine Whyte, Exhibition Catalogue, The Whyte Museum, Banff, Canada. 1988

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The following are excerpts from Catharine’s 1978 annual Christmas letter to family and friends:

All sorts of unexpected things happened last winter starting with my being presented with the Historical Society of Alberta Award for “Outstanding Contribution to Alberta History.” It was really the Staff of the Archives of the Canadian Rockies who deserve it, both past and present. Started with Maryalice Stewart and headed by Ted Hart, it has become the top Mountain Research Centre in Canada specializing in Canadian Rockies material.

 

Did better in Bruno Engler’s Vets Race at Norquay. With the boys’ encouragement to ski my natural way I tried a bit of Hannes Schneider’s system – didn’t cut the poles too close and didn’t fall either run and much to my surprise won the Senior Lady, as I got the trophy for being the oldest competitor too!”

 

 

Most important honour was being made a member of the Order of Canada. The motto: “They desire a better country.” Was for being President of the Peter Whyte Foundation which brought Pete into it too, as we had the ideas together. The investiture was on the 19th of April. Rather appropriate for a girl born in Concord, Mass. As Olive Beil said of Charlie’s, “It made one proud to be a Canadian.”

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Catharine returned to Banff after spending Christmas in Dominica. Complications from an operation resulted in her death on March 7, 1979.  Catharine is buried beside Pete in the Old Banff Cemetery.

 
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Whyte Museum: Opening Day Speech

 
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Thanks for joining us! 
 

Interested in more?

 

We're looking for help transcribing handwritten documents from our collections. Your work will help you and other users search by keywords and the names of people and places in our main search engine.

From the collection of our founder, Catharine Robb Whyte, we have selected various recently digitized letters from her personal correspondence. From grand travel around the globe, to adventures throughout the Canadian Rockies, there is something for everyone!

Click here to transcribe with us:

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