People & Culture

Love affair with Lake O’Hara: On the trail of the Group of Seven’s J.E.H. MacDonald

A sweeping new exhibit at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies celebrates MacDonald’s “O’Hara Era” through paintings, diaries, letters and artifacts

  • Jun 08, 2024
  • 758 words
  • 4 minutes
J.E.H. Macdonald, R. C. A. (1873 – 1932, Canadian), “Lake O’Hara — late afternoon”, 1928, oil on board, Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Gift of George K.K. (Tommy) Link, Tucson, USA, 1979
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Tucked in the alpine in Yoho National Park, B.C., Lake O’Hara has long been a magnet for hikers, painters and photographers. The small blue lake and surrounding snow-capped peaks have been immortalized in pencils, oils, ink and watercolours by a veritable who’s who of early 20th century artists, including the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, and J.E.H. MacDonald, as well as Walter Phillips, Aldro Hibbard and John Singer Sargent.  

Enraptured with Canadian landscapes, MacDonald’s search for new inspiration brought him to Yoho National Park and Lake O’Hara. After his initial visit in 1924, the area’s beauty, solitude and scenery drew him back six more times before his death in 1932. Decades later, inspired by MacDonald and their own love of Lake O’Hara, geologists Patricia Cucman and the late Stanley Munn set out to find and photograph the exact locations in MacDonald’s paintings. Their book, To See What He Saw: J.E.H. MacDonald and the O’Hara Years 1924-1932, is the product of meticulous research and reveals the artist’s process and mindset during the last decade of his life. 

A century after MacDonald’s first trip to Yoho, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alta. is mounting a special exhibition of over 100 of MacDonald’s works alongside Munn’s photographs and Cucman’s research on the corresponding locations. J. E. H. MacDonald: The O’Hara Era brings visitors into MacDonald’s creative process through his diaries, letters, and artifacts.

Ahead of the exhibit’s opening on June 15, Cucman discusses the inspiration for her research and what keeps bringing her back to Lake O’Hara. 

On the allure of Lake O’Hara

It’s the kind of place that just gets into your fibre. Sometimes you go there and it’s so beautiful it just makes you weep. The interesting thing about it, and I think the attraction for a lot of artists, is that because of the geomorphology of the basin, it almost generates its own light. You can’t take a bad picture, because the natural composition is just so perfect. Everything is in the right place. 

On the inspiration for her research project

[Stanley and I] had been going to O’Hara for quite a few years and one evening in 2003 we went to a talk by author and art historian Lisa Christensen about identifying MacDonald’s painting locations at O’Hara. Somebody said, you know, the Group is so interpretive, you can never find the exact location they  painted from. But Lisa had a photograph of MacDonald with Peter and Catherine Whyte (founders of the Whyte Museum) and we thought, well, maybe we can’t find the painting locations, but surely to goodness, we can find the photo location. It took us three visits. And once we found the photo location we realized you can actually find exact painting locations from photographs of the area. The depth of our investigation and this adrenaline of seeing the paintings spurred us on. We’d go searching for these painting locations and document them and take GPS readings and photographs. It got so big we thought, what can we do with this? How do we share this? 

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
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Photo: Stanley Munn
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On feeling a connection with MacDonald

There were places he went back to over and over again. We realized that he’d sit someplace and paint in one direction, and then turn 180 degrees and paint in the other direction. We got to the point where we understood MacDonald well enough that we could go to a place and say, where would he sit? I’d go and sit where I thought he would sit and sure enough, there would be paint beside the seat — the paint from his palette or his brush. Some of the paint scrapings are as small as your thumbnail. 

On what the exhibition reveals

We worked so diligently to honour all the data and be as truthful as possible without letting our enthusiasm get away with us. We’ve been so thorough that we’ve been able to actually compile calendars of each of his trips. Reading the letters and cross-referencing with the diaries, and our familiarity with the area, allowed us to say, oh, he’s talking about this painting on this day. MacDonald didn’t make anything up. If it was in front of him, it almost invariably ended up on the panel. So, it’s a real insight into how he thought and how he translated what he saw in front of him onto the panels. 

J.E.H. MacDonald: The O’Hara Era runs June 15-Oct. 20, 2024 at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

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