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From Lake O'Hara to Lake Louise: A Special Sneak Peek at Summer Exhibitions Celebrating Local Landscapes

Updated: May 1

Coming this summer to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies are exhibitions celebrating three prominent artists at the turn of the century and early 1900s. These painters offer a glimpse into past perspectives of our beloved local landscapes with their depictions of Lake O'Hara and Lake Louise before 1930. Now world-renowned destinations frequented by thousands of visitors, Lake O'Hara and Lake Louise existed in a different cultural world before the time of tourism, yet their natural beauty remains unwavered as we look back through years passed.

Learn more about Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith, and Albert Bierstadt in our upcoming summer exhibitions, and discover the impact of their work which continues to resonate a century later.

J.E.H. MacDonald: The O'Hara Era

This summer, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies offers a rare opportunity to view over 100 works by Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald from public and private collections.

The exhibition highlights new research, original paintings, and modern photographs of the art of J.E.H. MacDonald during his annual summer painting trips to the Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park between 1924 and 1932.

Commemorating the 100th anniversary of his first trip to Lake O'Hara, the exhibition promises to be an exceptional and unique experience, with the Whyte Museum as the sole venue.

J.E.H. MacDonald, R.C.A. (1873-1932, Canadian) Cathedral Mountain from Opabin Pass, 1929, oil on board. Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O.C., Banff, 1979.
J.E.H. MacDonald, R.C.A. (1873-1932, Canadian) Cathedral Mountain from Opabin Pass, 1929, oil on board. Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O.C., Banff, 1979.

The exhibition will show paintings from The Whyte Museum collection as well as from the National Gallery, the McMichael Collection, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Gallery Hamilton, University of Toronto Art Museum, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and the Art Gallery of Alberta. Numerous individuals and corporations have also generously lent their pieces.

The show is strengthened by original research conducted by geologists Patricia Cucman and the late Stanley Munn, who meticulously identified the exact locations of MacDonald's works, along with photographs, over the past 18 years. Their findings, documented in a major illustrated book entitled "To See What He Saw: J.E.H. MacDonald and the O'Hara Years 1924-1932", offer a fresh perspective on MacDonald and his work. Additionally, intriguing discoveries such as paint scrapings and teacup shards have been found in these exact locations, providing further insight into MacDonald's creative process and daily life during his time at Lake O'Hara. Specimens were analyzed by the Canadian Conservation Institute to support the provenance.

As well, the Whyte Museum has confirmed loan from Parks Canada of two Billy cans, stashed in rocks at painting sites by Macdonald. The combination of MacDonald’s paintings, artifacts, letters, and diary entries, as well as Stanley Munn’s contemporary photograph of the area will no doubt result in a compelling narrative of MacDonald’s O’Hara years providing a lens through which he has never been fully explored in exhibition.

Partnering with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and sponsored by Masters Gallery Calgary, we invite you to join us for this breathtaking exhibition featuring mountain landscapes inspired by MacDonald.

The Whyte Museum will be the sole venue for this incredible exhibition, bringing MacDonald’s paintings to regional and international visitors alike.


Bierstadt and Bell-Smith: The Influence of Lake Louise

Between 1886 and 1914, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) encouraged artists to produce works for the promotion of western Canada as an idyllic tourist destination and desirable settlement locale. It was also a strategy to sell tickets as a means of diminishing the huge debt incurred by the construction of the rail line. 

Picture of painting by Ilana Manolson entitled "Current."
Albert Bierstadt, Lake Louise, 38" x 60", Circa 1889. Oil on canvas. From the collection of R.E. ("Ted") Turner, III.

Some of the best painters and photographers of the day were sought after and encouraged to construct a pictorial vision of the West, resulting in one of the most significant art collections ever amassed in Canadian history. Instead of paying the artists for their participation, perks were provided in the form of free rail passage, temporary railcar studios, accommodation at mountain lodges, and the promotion of their works at international exhibits.


Sir William Cornelius Van Horne in his capacity as builder and later President of the CPR, rightly understood that a successful marketing campaign needed to target American and European sensibilities. Van Horne also knew of German born American painter Albert Bierstadt’s reputation as a leading landscape painter of the Hudson River School and its luminist movement. Having approached the artist on other occasions, Bierstadt finally accepted Van Horne’s generous incentives and departed from Windsor Station, Montreal on July 30, 1889. It was while resting at Glacier House, B.C. that he met Canadian painter Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith, who had painted in the Rockies during the summer since 1887. The two artists set out together, spending September camping and sketching at Lake Louise and throughout Bow River Valley. The area was remote and rugged yet provided spectacular vistas. Bell-Smith later wrote of their experience together citing Bierstadt’s compositional guidance and influence as having a profound inspirational effect.  


Bell-Smith’s oils and watercolours will be exhibited with Bierstadt’s Lake Louise canvas featured as the centrepiece of the exhibition. Sourced from historical material, the artist’s experience at Lake Louise will also be described.  The opportunity to exhibit these works together will provide a profound opportunity for the Whyte Museum’s national and international audiences to learn more about these artists and their influence on tourism in this region then and now.





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