Drawn to the West

The Canadian Rockies have long captured the hearts and imaginations of everyone who’s visited. The vast and wild spaces have especially spoken to the hearts of artists. In order to get artists inspired by the Rockies, they first had to get here. The latest exhibit from the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies explores the history of art in the mountains and tells the stories of how artists from across Canada and around the world are continually Drawn to the West.

The First Nations had a long and deep connection to the mountains for their beauty and their sacredness. Europeans got their first real glimpse when building the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was driven by the desire to connect Eastern Canada with British Columbia. The expensive and cumbersome project went way over budget and left the company with massive debts. Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, the president of CPR, famously came up with the idea to bring tourists to Banff and the surrounding areas in order to generate revenue for the railway. In what would become a successful marketing strategy, he brought painters to the mountains to “find the true face of Canada” and promote the Rockies as a travel destination.

Painting commissioned by the CPR by Charles Jones Way in 1900

Watercolour of the Fraser River at Yale, BC by Charles Jones Way, c. 1900.

Throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, wave after wave of artists visited Banff to capture the mountain scenery. The result is a wide and varied collection of artwork that spans oil painting, drawings, watercolours and more, all celebrating the beauty of the area. The marketing strategy worked, and the CPR hotels – now known as the Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – were full of tourists who couldn’t get enough of the Canadian Rockies.

The Whyte Museum has artwork from these early artists on display in their Drawn to the West exhibit, as well as more contemporary interpretations of the area and everything in between. There is a collection of four mysterious paintings from renowned Canadian painter Tom Thomson as well as popular work from the Group of Seven and works from the museum’s founders, Peter Whyte and Catharine Robb Whyte. The exhibit also covers the beginnings of the Banff School of Fine Art, and the painters that school produced.

Four mysterious paintings attributed to Tom Thomson

Four mysterious paintings of mountains in Banff and Canmore by Tom Thomson.

The collection of contemporary artwork shows how styles have changed over the years, but it also demonstrates how one thing stays the same: the vast and imposing landscapes of the Canadian Rockies still have a hold of the imaginations of everyone who sees them. The progression through time in the artwork of the mountains allows the viewer to truly experience the evolution of the landscape in the public imagination, while still remaining awestruck by the beauty and imposing size of the peaks.

Paintings by Whyte Museum founder Catharine Robb Whyte

A collection of paintings from Whyte Museum founder Catharine Robb Whyte.

If you find yourself in Banff, make sure you include a visit to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, where you can discover the history of the region through their permanent and temporary exhibits and you can see how the mountains have a long history of enticing artists, outdoor enthusiasts and everyday tourists who are all drawn to the west.

Boat of Bones, etching by Wilma Simon shown at Drawn to the West

Boat of Bones by Ojibway artist Wilma Simon.

Kate Barker