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From Mansions to Mountains: In Conversation with Catharine Robb Whyte

Updated: May 27, 2021

By Anne Ewen, Chief Curator of Art and Heritage

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This exhibition will re-engage 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.

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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.

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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 travelled 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.

Opening Summer 2021, please visit our website for updates.

This exhibition has been sponsored by Grit and Scott McCreath.

We thank them for their generosity.


Image 2: [Edith Morse Robb and Catharine Robb], n.d., WMCR, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds ( V683/IV/A/PA/622/OS)

Image 3: [Portrait of Catharine Robb Whyte], [ca. 1935-1945], WMCR, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/III/A/1/PA/006)

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