PETER WHYTE

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A painting sketch of the townsite of Banff from above and far away with the mountains in the background, the Bow River and lakes in view.

Town of Banff from Norquay Road, Peter Whyte, 1933, oil on canvas, 27.6 x 35.0cm. Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O.C., Banff, 1968.

Peter Whyte seated on a rock painting at an easel, en plein air.  Inscriptions on the back: “If you will look carefully behind the feet, you will find a young fellow named Peter”.

Peter Whyte seated on a rock painting at an easel, en plein air. Inscriptions on the back: “If you will look carefully behind the feet, you will find a young fellow named Peter”. (V683/II/A/PA-27, 1927, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds)

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EARLY FAMILY LIFE IN BANFF (1905-1934)

Peter was born January 22, 1905, in Banff, N.W.T (Alberta) to pioneer merchant Dave White and Scottish-born Annie (Curren) White. He was the third of four children, Clifford, Lila, and Dave “Jackie” Jr. The White children grew up surrounded by nature and an emphasis on outdoor life. They swam, hiked, snowshoed, rode horses, skated and skied. Skiing became a significant part of the White family legacy. All three boys were members of the Banff Ski Club. Cliff and Peter were specifically good at skiing and found a particular interest in jumping.(1)

Although he was a gifted athlete, Peter’s passion was for art. From an early age, he was drawing and sketching.(2) When Peter was about 10 years old he experienced his first art training in drawing and painting from Nora Drummond-Davis, a teacher at the Banff High School and illustrator for a British postcard company. She considered Peter one of the best in her class. Later, as a teen, he signed up for the 1922 edition of The Landon Course of Cartooning, a correspondence course, which would prove to be fundamental in his artistic career.(3) Peter also received private lessons from Belmore Browne, a New York-based painter, mountaineer and outdoorsman, and developed a close relationship with him.(4) He was also fortunate to learn from other artists who frequented the Banff area, such as Aldro T. Hibbard, and Carl Rungius throughout his teens. Coming from a working-class background, some speculate Dave and Annie were mostly unsupportive of Peter’s art, since it seemed like an illogical choice and there was the family business to think about.(5) Yet, Peter continued to follow his passion for art. 

A family portrait of Annie (in centre) with her children and two helpers: (back row l to r) Pete, unidentified, unidentified, (front row l to r) Lila, Dave “Jackie” Jr., and Cliff.

A family portrait of Annie (in centre) with her children and two helpers: (back row l to r) Pete, unidentified, unidentified, (front row l to r) Lila, Dave “Jackie” Jr., and Cliff. (V688/PA 71-37, c. 1980-1955, Barbara Whyte fonds)

Peter Whyte and Lillian Rich on skis with ski poles on Cave and Basin Road.

In his late teens, Peter worked on and off for Brewster Transport Company, driving buses and cars, as well as transporting movie stars around Banff. He drove Anna May Wong while she filmed The Alaskan (1924) and Lillian Rich while she filmed The Love Master (1924), even teaching her to ski.(6) Peter’s proximity to the movie industry made him interested in photography, learning about it on sets. The quality of his photographs even earned him attention and some sales.(7) In the mid-1920s, under the encouragement and support from Browne and his film industry friends, Peter enrolled in the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles to receive formal art training and attended from 1923 to 24. In the summer of 1925, Peter accompanied both J.E.H. MacDonald and Aldro T. Hibbard to Lake O’Hara for the first time, where he received more casual training and guidance. After spending time with Hibbard, Peter enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston instead of returning to Otis Art Institute, which would be a life-changing decision. (8)

Peter Whyte and Lillian Rich on skis with ski poles on Cave and Basin Road. (V683/II/A/PA-247, c. 1923, Peter and Catharine fonds)

A family picture of Annie and the boys sitting near trees with a dog, Jiggs, in the middle. From right to left, Cliff, Peter, Dave “Jackie” Jr.(?), and Annie in the back.

A family portrait family picture of Annie and the boys sitting near trees with a dog, Jiggs, in the middle. From right to left, Cliff, Peter, Dave “Jackie” Jr.(?), and Annie in the back. (V681/B-1-PA13, c. 1925, Dave White family fonds)

Dave and Annie White at an older age standing in a grassy area, neither facing the camera.
Peter Whyte as an adolescent sitting outside smiling at the camera.

Peter Whyte as an adolescent sitting outside smiling at the camera. Inscription on the back: “Pete years ago I thought he might like to have these”. (V683/II/A/PA-17, c. 1908 - 1923, 

Dave and Annie White at an older age standing in a grassy area, neither facing the camera. (V681/B-4-PA12, n.d, Dave White family fonds)

 
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Peter Whyte standing with a white artist coat on a lawn in front of the front doors to the Otis Art Institute.  (V683/II/A/PA-151, ca. 1924-1925, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds)

The School of the Museum of Fine Arts offered a traditional program where students learned to draw first then paint. Peter and the other students would study drawing for four hours in the morning, with a mixture of art history, design, perspective, and anatomy in the afternoon six days a week. Peter had shown great promise, being awarded scholarships each year which allowed him to continue his formal training, alongside the money he earned during the summer working on the CPR trains.(9) In the fall of 1925, Peter and Catharine Robb were introduced and from here started a beautiful friendship that turned into a loving relationship over the next five years.

Peter Whyte standing with a white artist coat on a lawn in front of the front doors to the Otis Art Institute.  (V683/II/A/PA-151, ca. 1924-1925, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds)

In 1926, they were frequently hanging out and going to various art exhibitions across Boston.(10) It was during this time, 1925-26, Peter changed the spelling of White to Whyte. There is some speculation as to why and a plausible theory is that Whyte has a better visual aesthetic than White, an important aspect of an artist’s signature.(11) In the summer of 1927, Peter and Catharine began a correspondence that continued for many years. In Pete’n’Catharine: Their Story, Jon Whyte, nephew to Peter and Catharine, compiled excerpts from diaries, letters, and notes from the couple to highlight their story. Through this edited collection of correspondence, we can hear their voices and catch a glimpse of their friendship, similarities, passion for the future, travel and art.(12) In the summer of 1929, Catharine, Gardner Cox (another art student and friend who later became Pete's best man), and two female friends visited Peter in Banff for a month. Peter introduced Catharine, along with Gardner, to his family and they took trips up to Lake O’Hara to paint and sketch.(13) 

In the fall of 1929, Peter decided not to return to Boston at the suggestion that he would lose his originality if he stayed at the school for too long.(14) Peter and Catharine also decided that they were to be married in the summer of 1930 and while Catharine finished her last year at school, Peter travelled the world. In October, he set sail on the Empress of Asia from Vancouver where he travelled to Yokohama, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Honolulu, where he worked at the Moana Hotel for a brief period, and back to Hong Kong in February 1930.(15) He then signed on as a seaman on President Wilson bound for Italy via Manila, Singapore, Penang, Columbo, Suez Canal and Naples.(16) During Pete’s travel’s in 1929 he may have kept more than two sketchbooks, though the Whyte Museum has two in the art collection and the  photographs from his adventures. In May, Peter and Catharine were finally reunited in Edinburgh and from there sailed back to Boston for wedding preparations.(17) On June 30th, Peter and Catharine were married and for a “honeymoon” took a month off and drove through New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Montana. By August, they had settled into their Banff life and were up painting in the mountains.

 [A newspaper clipping of Peter and Catharine on their wedding day]. (M36/II/F/3/2016-38, ca. 1924-1925, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds

 [A newspaper clipping of Peter and Catharine on their wedding day]. (M36/II/F/3/2016-38, ca. 1924-1925, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds

(Peter, Anna May Wong & Laska Winters) [Laska Winters, Pete White, Anna May Wong - one of old cabins at Castle Mt - “The Alaskan” 1924],V683/II/A/PA-473, 1924, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds 

(Peter, Anna May Wong & Laska Winters) [Laska Winters, Pete White, Anna May Wong - one of old cabins at Castle Mt - “The Alaskan” 1924],V683/II/A/PA-473, 1924, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds 

 (Peter on a boat shirtless) [Peter Whyte working as able-bodied seaman during world tour]. (V683/II/A/PA-220, ca. 1919 to 1929, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds)

 (Peter on a boat shirtless) [Peter Whyte working as able-bodied seaman during world tour]. (V683/II/A/PA-220, ca. 1919 to 1929, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds)

[Peter Whyte on Waikiki Beach]. 1930. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PA - 109. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

[Peter Whyte on Waikiki Beach]. 1930. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PA - 109. A

 

ART SCHOOL AND CATHARINE ROBB WHYTE (1924-1930)

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LIFE IN BANFF WITH CATHARINE (1930-1940)

Group at Oesa. 1929-1930. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 15 / PA - 2. From left to right, Peter Whyte, Adeline Link, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Catharine Whyte sitting at the base of a large boulder with their hiking supplies above on a ledge of the boulder and backpacks around them.

Group at Oesa. 1929-1930. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 15 / PA - 2. From left to right, Peter Whyte, Adeline Link, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Catharine Whyte sitting at the base of a large boulder with their hiking supplies above on a ledge of the boulder and backpacks around them.

Peter Whyte sketching. [ca. 1930-1939]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 15 / PA - 52 "Taken by Margot Panet of Montreal of Peter Whyte sketching perhaps sketch of Hungabee picture" written on the back in pencil by Catharine Whyte

Peter Whyte sketching. [ca. 1930-1939]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 15 / PA - 52 "Taken by Margot Panet of Montreal of Peter Whyte sketching perhaps sketch of Hungabee picture" written on the back in pencil by Catharine Whyte

Dave and Annie were happy for the newlywed couple, and as a wedding present gave them a plot of land where they could build a house.(18) In May 1931, Peter and Catharine’s house was finished and they moved in. Their house was a source of community and they constantly had people over. Peter and Catharine spent lots of time in the mountains with lots of friends. They painted and explored with J.E.H. MacDonald, George K.K. “Tommy” and Adeline Link.(19) Throughout the 1930s, they developed a routine for painting. They sketched en plein air in the summer, spring, and fall during good weather and worked on the larger paintings inside during the winter and bad weather.(20)

Their house still stands today on the Whyte Museum property.

Peter and Catharine Whyte on skis. [ca. 1929-1935]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 15 / PA - 183.

In November 1931, Peter and Catharine took charge of Skoki Lodge for two ski seasons and Peter became the guide. At the beginning of the 1933 ski season, Peter brought his sketch box and started painting sketches. In late March, a large group of 15 skiers came up from Boston at Catharine’s encouragement to come to visit Skoki. They had lots of fun for the first week until tragedy struck. On April 7th, Dr. Raymond “Kit” Paley, a 25-year-old English mathematician, died in an avalanche. This event greatly affected Peter and Catharine with feelings of guilt. Peter was questioned by investigators from the Rockefeller Foundation, and in the end, they concluded that the fault had rested solely with Paley. Still, this whole ordeal had been incredibly difficult on Peter, and by mid-April Peter and Catharine left Skoki for the season. It wasn’t until May that Peter began painting again.(21)

Peter and Catharine Whyte on skis. [ca. 1929-1935]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 15 / PA - 183.

In the next few years, Peter and Catharine began to travel more, painting when they could. They visited Concord, Chicago, San Francisco, Hawaii, London, Germany, and the Swiss Alps. They went on a round-the-world steamer trip to Japan, China, Bali, and Java. They also went on a 17-day boat trip that took them from Sumatra, Indonesia  to Marseille, where they then travelled to Paris. In late 1934, they returned home to Banff.(22) But it wasn’t long before they travelled again, down the West Coast of the United States, Panama Canal, to the European Alps for skiing, and Norway to paint. However, the Second World War would put an end to their travels.(23)

Peter Whyte. 1936. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 15 / PA - 173. Image of Peter Whyte leaning on ski poles with a tall building and ski slope visible in the background - "Peter Whyte Obergurgl 1936" written in pencil on the back by Catharine Whyte.

Peter Whyte. 1936. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 15 / PA - 173. Image of Peter Whyte leaning on ski poles with a tall building and ski slope visible in the background - "Peter Whyte Obergurgl 1936" written in pencil on the back by Catharine Whyte.

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THE WAR AND LATER YEARS (1940s-1960s)

[Portrait of Peter Whyte in R.C.A.F. uniform]. [ca. 1942]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PA - 113.

During the war, Peter served in the reserve army, Banff Company of the Calgary Highlanders and later with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a photographer. In 1943, when he enlisted with the R.C.A.F. he spent his time at Sea Island, Vancouver, Pat Bay near Victoria, and Tofino, painting in his spare time. In 1944, Peter went to Ottawa and was told he’d be an Official War Artist.(24) During this time Peter produced 50 plus paintings for the Government. An early issue of The Cairn, the Whyte Museum’s newsletter, has a detailed description of Peter’s War years, including information about a past exhibition that showed the paintings and sketches he created during this time.

[Portrait of Peter Whyte in R.C.A.F. uniform]. [ca. 1942]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PA - 113. 

Peter Whyte, Jon Whyte and Bill McKenzie [?] on path outside Whyte home. [ca. 1945]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 5 / PA - 215.

Peter Whyte, Jon Whyte and Bill McKenzie [?] on path outside Whyte home. [ca. 1945]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 5 / PA - 215.

[Peter Whyte on roadside]. 1961. Jewel Jackson, photographer. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PA - 117.

[Peter Whyte on roadside]. 1961. Jewel Jackson, photographer. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PA - 117.

[Peter Whyte feeding chickadee]. [ca.1931-1946]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PD - 2.

[Peter Whyte feeding chickadee]. [ca.1931-1946]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PD - 2.

Following the war, he resumed his art career, painting, exploring new photographic technologies and sculpting. In the late 1940s, Peter developed cataracts in his eyes and by the early 1950s it was so bad he couldn’t see well enough to paint. This was very difficult for Peter since painting had been his life’s work. In 1953 and 54, he underwent two operations that slightly improved his sight but ultimately his vision declined again and he was unable to paint.(25) Unfortunately, Peter had used alcohol to cope with his increasing troubles and stress. Many possible factors potentially led to this decline: vision loss and the end of his painting, disappointment at his time in the R.C.A.F. and the War, the lack of commercial success in his artistic career, the death of Kit Paley, a familial predisposition to alcoholism, boredom, living in the shadows of his famous artist friends, or the feelings of general failure.(26) Peter sold very few works and never had a major show or exhibition during his lifetime. Whilst Peter, and Catharine, could’ve found more commercial success in a metropolitan city like New York, they chose to stay in Banff. They had found a home and a community.(27) Peter’s health continued to decline in his later years, and after an extended illness he passed away on December 3, 1966. In the years following his passing, his paintings and sketches would find their place in the various galleries in the Whyte Museum.

[Catharine and Peter Whyte seated outside their home in Banff]. [ca.1963]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PA - 42. An older, smiling Catharine and Peter Whyte sitting outside the front of their home, Catharine in a red wooden chair and Peter on the stone slab, with yellow leaves on the ground in colour.  Inscription on the back: “Katherine + Peter Whyte at their home in Banff Alberta, Canada 1960 Photo by: Miss Christine L. Reid 86 Buckinham Street, #24 Cambridge Mass. 02138 - U.S.A.”

[Catharine and Peter Whyte seated outside their home in Banff]. [ca.1963]. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / III / A / 1 / PA - 42.

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LEGACY

Although Peter and Catharine never had children, their friendliness and generosity were known within the community. Artist Christine Wignall remembers Peter and Catharine as friends, mentors, and occasionally benefactors. Christine and her sister, Lynnie, would frequently visit the Whyte home in their childhood. The girls would often sit and talk with Peter and Catharine, they would be shown paintings the couple were working on, slides of their trips, or Peter would show off his cameras and photographs. On some occasions, there would be drawing lessons. Most importantly, Peter and Catharine were inspiring their young friends to travel, think, appreciate other cultures and be generous to those less fortunate.(28) Peter was known as a quiet contributor to those in need, whether it was financial or a helpful hand. He learned to be charitable through the values instilled by his family’s generosity to those in need. (29)

Peter Whyte (1905 – 1966, Canadian). Seven Teepees. 1932 – 1935. oil on canvas. 56.0 x 152.5 cm. Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C., Banff, 1968. WyP.02.004. Indigenous encampment containing seven teepees and small groups of people, a dog, background horses and mountains. There is green grass in the foreground, white and beige teepees and grey-blue mountains in the distance.

Peter Whyte (1905 – 1966, Canadian). Seven Teepees. 1932 – 1935. oil on canvas. 56.0 x 152.5 cm. Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C., Banff, 1968. WyP.02.004. 

Peter, and later Catharine, found a natural and respectful relationship with the Stoney Nakoda people built on mutual trust. Peter had a strong connection to the Stoney Nakoda nation. Through his families strong connection Peter knew many Stoney Nakoda. He described his relationship with Mark Poucette and his wife, as having been “great friends of ours for years. All his boys are dead, so he adopted my brother and myself as his sons and always calls us his own. Today he took great delight in telling some friend I was his son, explaining how he had known me since I was born…”(30) Peter was made a member of the Stoney Band around 1925, and Catharine received the same honour years later in 1970.(31) The Whyte Museums continues to uphold this relationship established by the Whytes through programs such as Recognizing Relations: Who will you remember?  and the values of the Museum.

Peter Whyte (1905 – 1966, Canadian). Untitled [Sarcee]. 1937. oil on canvas. 76.5 x 64.2 cm. Gift of Mary Burton, Calgary, 1988. WyP.02.072. Head and shoulders portrait dominates right side of picture. The headdress covers top and left centre. The feathers appear black with red beaded tubes at head band. He is wearing a white beaded vest with red and green design on chest. A row of teepees are in bottom left background.A gold plaque is affixed to the bottom of the frame Donated by A. Gordon Burton

Peter Whyte (1905 – 1966, Canadian). Untitled [Sarcee]. 1937. oil on canvas. 76.5 x 64.2 cm. Gift of Mary Burton, Calgary, 1988. WyP.02.072.

Peter and Catharine had enjoyed a rich and interesting life in Banff and the Rockies, and dreamed of preserving it for future generations. Peter and Catharine had been collecting artifacts, manuscripts, photographs, and other items of historic interest and recorded many traditional Stoney Nakoda songs and stories. They owned a significant collection of fine art by celebrated artists who had painted in the region, and they also had most of their work. The Wa-Che-Yo-Cha-Pa Foundation was established on September 3, 1958. It would later be known as the Peter Whyte Foundation, then the Peter and Catharine Whyte Foundation.(32)The Wa-Che-Yo-Cha-Pa Foundation was founded to house Peter and Catharine’s collection and build a museum, library and archives. Peter, unfortunately, passed away before the project was completed. But, Catharine continued the project and on June 16, 1968, opened the Banff Public Library, Archives of the Canadian Rockies and the Peter Whyte Gallery.(33) Peter’s legacy, along with Catharine’s, lives through the Whyte Museum, its collection, and the community of Banff.

[Peter Whyte]. ca.1918 to ca.1929. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / II / A / PA - 63.

[Peter Whyte]. ca.1918 to ca.1929. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. V683 / II / A / PA - 63.

 
 
 
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Check Out Theses Resources to Learn More About Peter Whyte

Endnotes:
  1. Mountain Romantics, 31-32

  2. Commemorative Portfolio, 47

  3. Mountain Romantics, 57; Artistry Revealed 20

  4. Mountain Romantics, 57

  5. Anne Interview; Mountain Romantics 57; Artistry Revealed 30

  6. Mountain Romantics, 57-58; Artistry Revealed 35

  7. Artistry Revealed, 20-21

  8. Mountain Romantics, 58; Artistry Revealed 22, 25

  9. Mountain Romantics, 62

  10. Mountain Romantics, 61

  11. Mountain Romantics, 62

  12. Pete’n’Catherine: Their Story, along with a foreword essay by Carmen Pearson are available for free digitally.

  13. Mountain Romantics, 64-65

  14. Commemorative Portfolio 48

  15. Mountain Romantics, 66

  16. Mountain Romantics, 67

  17. Mountain Romantics, 67-68

  18. Mountain Romantics, 69

  19. Mountain Romantics, 72

  20. Mountain Romantics, 73

  21. Mountain Romantics, 77

  22. Mountain Romantics, 80

  23. Mountain Romantics, 141

  24. Mountain Romantics, 141

  25. Mountain Romantics, 142-43

  26. Mountain Romantics, 143

  27. Anne Interview

  28. Christine’s email to Ciara/Anne

  29. Artistry Revealed, 55

  30. Artistry Revealed, 47-48

  31. Artistry Revealed, 61

  32. Mountain Romantics, 201

  33. Mountain Romantics, 202

Bibliography

Scott, Chic. Mountain Romantics: The Whytes of Banff. Banff, Canada: Assiniboine Publishing Limited, 2014. 

 

Ewen, Anne. “Introduction.” In Artistry Revealed: Peter Whyte, Catharine Robb Whyte and Their Contemporaries/L’art dévoilé: Peter Whyte, Catharine Robb Whyte et leurs contemporains, Lisa Christensen, Monique Westre, and Anne Ewen. Banff, Canada: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, 2018. 

 

Whyte, Jon, selected and annotated by. Pete’n’Catharine: their story drawn from diaries, letters, and notes, illustrated with their drawings, photographs, cartoons, cards, and sketches. Banff, Canada: The Whyte Foundation, 1980. 

 

Anne Ewen (Chief Curator of Art and Heritage), in discussion with the author, March 18, 2022. 

 

Christine Wignall, e-mail message to Anne Ewen/Ciara Linteau, August 30, 2017.