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Never-before-seen collection of paintings from Group of Seven's J.E.H. MacDonald coming to Banff museum

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The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff is preparing an exhibit to showcase a never-before-seen collection of landscape paintings of Lake O’Hara and Yoho National Park from a founding member of the esteemed Group of Seven.

The collection will pay homage to the 100th anniversary of James Edward Hervey (J.E.H) MacDonald’s first trip to Lake O’Hara.

It features paint scrapings, artifacts and current site photographs from an Alberta couple who researched and documented the views painted by MacDonald during his trips to the region between 1924 and 1932.

“We’re so excited. We’re the only institution in the country that will be exhibiting this incredible show,” says Anne Ewen, director and chief curator at the Whyte Museum.

Nearly 100 of MacDonald’s paintings from his trips to the area are on loan from more than 20 different galleries and 30 private collectors.

“Some of these things have never been on display ever,” says curatorial assistant Amie Lalonde.

“Some are in vaults and don’t get seen very often. Some are probably well known but not as well known as MacDonald’s eastern works from Algoma so, I think it’s a really good opportunity for the public to see MacDonald’s work from the west that they might not be aware of.”

Paint scrapings discovered next to where MacDonald used to sit to paint have been analyzed by the Canadian Conservation Institute and will accompany the paintings.

“They could have been MacDonald’s but they are definitely of the era. They could have been paint scrapings by Peter White, they could have been paint scrapings by Carl Rungius. Those artists all used the same paint at that time,” says Ewen. “It is oil paint so it’s not as if it’s going to wash away. I think the other reason it’s still there is people don’t know where it is.”

The exhibit will also feature letters, diaries and two billycans used to make tea that were stashed into rocks at one of MacDonald’s painting sites, which offers a new look into the artist’s process.

“It’s just the perfect mix of art and history and also it has a contemporary aspect with the photographs and you can see how the landscape has changed over the last 100 years or stayed the same in a lot of ways,” says Lalonde.

“[Lake O’Hara] is just so awe-inspiring when you’re there and I think J.E.H. really captures it both faithfully and he has a different eye to places.”

‘We got really, really hooked’

The exhibit wouldn’t be a reality without an Alberta couple’s research of MacDonald’s paintings of Lake O’Hara.

Over more than 20 years, retired geologists Patty Cucman and the late Stanley Munn studied, identified and travelled to the exact locations of MacDonald’s works.

“It was kind of romantic,” says Cucman. “We’d spend the winters looking for images of paintings and Stan started cataloguing his photographs according to the paintings, and it turned into a full-blown love affair. We got really, really hooked.”

Cucman says the pair’s passion was further driven by the discovery of paint scrapings and certain artifacts after hiking through challenging terrains.

“We found paint on rocks beside where he sat and there were lots of locations we knew it was remote enough that when we sat on the rock, we knew the last person that sat there was Uncle Jim [MacDonald],” she says.

“When you sat beside that paint the whole landscape just snapped into perfect perspective and to see this paint was put there in 1925 and we found that in probably 2012.”

Cucman also fondly recalls finding artifacts in the same location photographed in a picture of MacDonald on one of his trips to the area.

“I got down on my hands and knees and stuck my head into this little niche in the rocks and there was a broken teacup that matched the teacups in the photograph. So, something like that is such a tangible connection to someone who loved the area as much as we did.”

The couple’s findings are being documented in an illustrated book that will debut at the exhibit, which is a bittersweet milestone for Cucman, as it will mark a year since Munn’s death last summer.

“It’s really unfortunate he’s not here to celebrate it because there have been several little milestones along the way,” she says. “But he’ll be there with us in spirit I know.” 

J.E.H. MacDonald: The O’Hara Era opens June 15 at the Whyte Museum and runs until Oct. 20.

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