A painter of battlefields – Mary Riter Hamilton

My subject for this post is entirely unexpected, at least to me. I was researching World War I, looking at sad, sad photographs of soldiers in black and white—exhausted, cold and damp, sloughing through mud, wearing gas masks some times, critically wounded at others, sometimes already dead. It was a terrible war. I’m no expert on that war, but I have a general notion of how it went and if anyone were to ask me about World War I and art, I would probably mention the photography of Lewis Hine or the poetry of Rupert Brooke.

Mary Riter Hamilton

Until now, I had never heard of Mary Riter Hamilton, a Canadian artist, who, in 1919, was commissioned to paint the battlefields of France for the publication, The Gold Stripe. For three years she lived in France alone in a tin hut in the midst of some 500 Chinese workers hired to clear the Western Front of the debris of war. (Chinese workers!? Try to take that in.) Since she was at least somewhat obscure, I searched for the paintings without expecting too much. They turned out to be oddly melancholy, possibly the emptiest pictures I’d ever seen. And at the same time paintings about memory. They were deeply moving.

Shelter Trench on the Somme

Kummel Road, Flanders

 

 Mary Riter Hamilton grew up in Manitoba, and that explains one reason she’s not well-known. She’s Canadian. Secondly, she was a woman and women artists have always had difficulty attracting attention. A Canadian woman, in the early 20th century, even one who achieved some success, was not likely to be recognized or remembered.

Married at 18, she was widowed by the age of 23. To support herself she operated a china painting school (apparently a fad at the time), but soon she went to Europe—Italy, Germany and eventually Paris—to study. Her work began to be accepted and in 1909 a painting, Les Pauvres, was displayed at the French Salon. In 1911 she returned to Canada to care for her ailing mother, and stayed there through the war, continuing both to paint and to sell paintings. The assignment to paint battlefields, to make a tribute to Canadian soldiers who were wounded and killed in the War, was a dangerous one because of “criminals” roaming the region. It was also a distressing one, but one that came to mean the world to her:

I came out because I felt I must come, and if I did not come at once it would be too late, because the battlefields would be obliterated and places watered with the best blood of Canada might be only names and memories. Of course, the great facts of the war would remain, and I could add nothing but my pictures to the essential tragedy and meaning of it all, but it seemed to me that something was in danger of being lost.

I do not think I could re-live that time; and I know that anything of worth or anything of beauty which may be found in the pictures themselves reflects only dimly the visions which came then; the visions which came from the spirit of the men themselves.

Trench with duckboard and poppies

That quote came from a letter to the Dominion Archivist, Dr. Arthur Doughty. I don’t know if there are any other letters or diary entries, no one seems to have written anything about her. No books. No magazine articles or documentary films. As far as I know there are only the paintings.

When she returned to Winnipeg in 1925, she was blind in one eye due to an illness. (Again, I don’t know that it had anything to do with her battlefield work.) Once more, she taught painting, and in 1925 donated 227 of her battlefield works to the Canadian Public Archives. The paintings themselves were to win many awards, but changing fashions in art ended most of the interest in them. The last years of her life, from 1929 to 1954 were spent in Vancouver. She died there at the age of 81.

Mt. St. Eloi, Felixcullen, Belgium

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11 thoughts on “A painter of battlefields – Mary Riter Hamilton

  1. This seems particularly relevant today, when the Times has an obituary for Frank Buckles, “The Last World War I Doughboy, Dies at 110.” He didn’t see action, but saw its aftermath, the hunger of the children. It’s hard to judge Hamilton’s paintings from the computer, but they do seem moving.

  2. Mary Riter Hamilton is buried in Thunder Bay, Ontario alongside her husband. Several years ago I had the honour of raising funds for a headstone for her since an unmarked grave just did not feel right given all she gave to Canada. Fred Johnson

    • thank you whoever you are, from an official war artist (Afghanistan), and a woman… I will never ever understand our great country and how it so utterly fails those who “stand on guard for thee” – and this includes artist-witnesses

    • I am a family member, my Great Great Grandmother, Eliza Jane (Zimmerman) Hacking was a younger sibling of MRH’s mother, Charity ( Zimmerman) Riter. I did not know she had an unmarked grave until last year when I spoke with and then, this year met with Dave Nicholson. I am very thankful for your efforts! Lorna ( Brown) Stevens, Winnipeg.

  3. In regard to the original entry, saying: “I don’t know if there are any other letters or diary entries, no one seems to have written anything about her. No books. No magazine articles or documentary films. As far as I know there are only the paintings.”

    I discovered Mary Riter Hamilton’s work through an article by Robert Sibley in The Ottawa Citizen dated August 4, 1991; and I saw an exhibition of her work at the National Archives in Ottawa about the same time I think. There is a booklet, entitled: No Man’s Land: The Battlefield Paintings of Mary Riter Hamilton 1919-1922 with a selection of photographs of paintings from the exhibit organized by Angela E. Davis and Sarah M. McKinnon, co-sponosred by The War Amputations of Canada, the University of Winnipeg and the National Archives of Canada.

    There is also a 27 minute VCR tape entitled “The War Amps presents No Man’s Land (from the Never Again! series)”. VCR tapes are not particularly useful right now, but it might have been transferred to a DVD by now. You might try the War Amps at 1-800-219-8988 (the number on the back of the VCR case) or the website http://www.waramps.ca

    I think her work is an extraordinary testimony, hauntingly beautiful, and it deserves to be on view. The war art exhibitions currently (May, 2014) at the Canadian War Museum do not include any of her work, which is a shame: two repositories of Canadian war art seemingly unable to speak to each other.
    Gordon Vachon

    • I have been invited to a book launch Sept 30th, 2017, to introduce the book about Mary Riter Hamilton’s life. No Man’s Land written by Dr. Young and others. I can hardly wait to read it!
      Lorna Stevens, Winnipeg a MRH family member.

  4. Apparently TVO will be running a programme discussing the life and work of Mary Riter Hamilton on 12 Aug 2014 (The Agenda).

  5. I was pleasantly surprised when an email appeared in my inbox carrying Lotus Johnson’s comment and announcement of the book. I will certainly be purchasing it. My thanks go to Lotus Johnson for passing on the info.
    Having just seen the movie Maudie, this makes me think that a movie about Mary Riter Hamilton would be equally informative and at least as dramatic, though undoubtedly difficult to capture the destruction she witnessed as she travelled the battlefields after the war.

  6. Where will the book launch take place on 30 Oct?
    Unfortunately, I will be out of the country on that date, so unable to attend, but I hope that someone will report on the launch and perhaps be able to post the opening remarks etc.

    Is there an update on when pre-orders of the book will be sent out?

    Regards,
    Gordon Vachon

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