Mary Riter Hamilton, Canada's 1st female battlefield artist, helped the country 'grieve mass loss'

In 1919, Canadian artist Mary Riter Hamilton embarked on a solo mission to paint the World War One battlefields of France and Belgium. A century later, documentary maker Alisa Siegel speaks to the artist's biographer, historians, and art historians to resuscitate Mary Riter Hamilton's art, life, and legacy.

The painter produced the largest known collection of First World War art

Just after the First World War, artist Mary Riter Hamilton documented what she saw in the former war zones of France and Belgium. Here she is at her easel at the market square in Ypres, Belgium, in 1919. (Antony d’Ypres, In Flanders Fields Museum)

*Originally published on November 11, 2021.

"I came out because I felt I must come, and if I did not come at once it would be too late."

So wrote Mary Riter Hamilton in 1922. The Canadian artist had just completed a two-and-a-half-year solo expedition to Europe's postwar battlefields. In that time, she created more than 300 paintings and drawings, the largest known collection of First World War art.

She embarked on this artistic and historic mission in order to bear witness, to ensure that future generations would remember the devastation and the overwhelming loss caused by the Great War.

That was a century ago, and since then, Riter Hamilton herself has been largely forgotten. Until now.

Riter Hamilton's Clearing the Battlefields in Flanders (1921). (Library and Archives Canada)

The contributions of women are often absent in the larger commemoration of Remembrance Day. Biographer Irene Gammel is working to resurrect Riter Hamilton's life and legacy, having spent a decade following the artist's footsteps in order to write I Can Only Paint: The Story of Battlefield Painter Mary Riter Hamilton. 

"I was drawn to the story of a strong woman whose story had not yet been told, or not yet been sufficiently or accurately told," said Gammel, a professor of art, literature and culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. 

Riter Hamilton fought hard to serve as one of Canada's official war artists during the war. Time and again, she was rebuffed by those in charge of the Canadian War Arts Program, particularly Edmund Walker, chair of the National Gallery's advisory board.

They claimed she was "too direct, that she was too pushy and that she didn't have the right temperament," said Gammel. 

Professor Irene Gammel resurrects the life and legacy of Mary Riter Hamilton and the significance of her art in her biography I Can Only Paint: The Story of Battlefield Painter Mary Riter Hamilton. (McGill-Queen's University Press)

"The idea of sending a woman to portray war was in many ways unthinkable," said Brian Foss, a professor of art history at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

While a number of women artists were commissioned to create art on the homefront, "sending a woman to Europe during the First World War would have been just beyond the pale."

But Hamilton persisted, and left for France and Belgium during the armistice in 1919.

'I cannot talk, I can only paint'

Born in Teeswater, Ont., in 1867 — the same year as Confederation — Hamilton had by age 26 already suffered the deaths of both her husband (who died of an infection) and stillborn infant. 

"This family that she had been hoping to build for herself had been destroyed," recounted Gammel. "At that point, she decided to become an artist."

She studied art in Toronto and New York and later moved to Paris, where she lived for much of the period from 1903 to 1911. As early as 1905, she was included in one of the most illustrious art exhibitions, the Paris Salon. In 1911, Riter Hamilton returned to Canada.

Riter Hamilton in a photograph taken circa 1911–12. (Ronald T. Riter Collection)

She lived in Western Canada — first in Winnipeg and then Victoria — which placed her on the fringes of the major art centres, but she managed to establish a thriving art practice. She taught art, exhibited her work widely across Canada and Europe, received favourable reviews and was a sought-after artist by high-profile collectors, among them Canada's then-prime minister, Robert Borden. 

"In almost all of the pictures that we have of her," noted Gammel, "she has this stare at the camera. And even when we see her painting, when we see her in the act, she nails her subject. This was somebody who was very direct in how she acted, in how she spoke, and that at times rubbed people the wrong way. Some people were intimidated by her, especially powerful men."

When the First World War ended, the Amputation Club of British Columbia — the predecessor to the War Amps of Canada — commissioned Hamilton to portray the postwar battlefields for its magazine, The Gold Stripe. She set sail for France and Belgium at the very moment when most were leaving the former battlefields for home.

In late-April 1919, Riter Hamilton stepped foot on Vimy Ridge for the first time. 

"It was cold and snowing," she wrote, much as it had when the men of the Canadian Corps captured the ridge two years earlier. "I am glad to have seen it under hard conditions, for I want to get the spirit of it … before it is too late to get a real impression."

Isolated Grave and Camouflage, Vimy Ridge, 20 May 1919. (Library and Archives Canada)

She was a strange sight, in a long dress and wide-brimmed hat, a woman alone on the battlefields. She often slept in abandoned huts and bunkers left behind by the soldiers. She travelled alone, often on foot, carrying her belongings and art supplies. She painted feverishly among the ruins, moving from one site to the next, from one unmarked grave to the next.

"To her, these graves were something that needed to be articulated, that needed to be spoken visually," said Gammel. "She always said, 'I cannot talk, I can only paint.'" 

Painting a counter-narrative

What possessed her to go? And what possessed her to stay as long as she did?

"I think Mary was driven [by] a responsibility toward humanity, toward those who had suffered," said Gammel. "She had seen some of the soldiers return. She knew about shell shock. She knew the men of the Amputation Club. She knew some of the results of the war itself. She wanted to see for herself."

Mary Riter Hamilton in Ypres in 1919. 'I wish I could transport you here, for one must see it all in order to realize just what this terrible war has done,' the artist wrote in a letter to her friend in June 1919. (Antony d’Ypres, In Flanders Fields Museum )

Her sense of artistic mission emerged in reaction to the horror of a war in which 40 million people had been killed or wounded. And during her time on the former battlefields, she painted a counter-narrative to the more traditional, glorified depictions of war.

Foss noted that like Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer, Hamilton "was in the process of pointing out that modern warfare is not what people thought warfare was all about. It was, in fact, horrific and ugly and dirty and lonely and extraordinarily dangerous, and involved none of the histrionic activity that the more academic artists still persisted in portraying."

There is a haunting quality to Hamilton's wartime paintings. The Sadness of the Somme, for example, is an image of a long, lonely road lined by the thin remains of what were once trees and are now lifeless limbs protruding from the ground.

The Sadness of the Somme (ca. 1920). (Library and Archives Canada)

The painting conveys a ghostly sense of absence and loss, much like her Dug Out on the Somme, an abstract painting of a collapsing underground shelter for soldiers rendered in browns and greys.

"She takes us right down close to the ground," Gammel said. "When we look closely at this image, you understand that there was danger for her in being in this space." 

For Foss, the painting's power lies in its spare and intimate focus on death and destruction. "It's elegiac and commemorative. And there's this sense of the missing men, the men who walked in this trench, who walked through that door, who are no longer there."

Dug Out on the Somme (1919). (Library and Archives Canada)

'My heart has given out of air'

By 1921, more than two years after she arrived on the battlefields, Riter Hamilton had reached a breaking point. She was physically and emotionally depleted. 

She suffered from rheumatism and mental anguish and was poor. And she had also become silent — her letters to friends and family back home had come to a full stop. 

"Although she may never have received a PTSD diagnosis," wrote Gammel, "it's safe to conclude that she suffered from some type of PTSD, then a highly stigmatized disorder." 

"I fear I must give up for a time," Riter Hamilton wrote that year, "my heart has given out of air." 

Mary Riter Hamilton is seen wearing a fur stole in a rare photograph of her in the wake of her European expedition. It is not clear whether the photo was taken in Europe or in Canada. (Ronald T. Riter Collection)

The artist was no longer able to look after herself and no longer able to paint. She travelled to Paris for what she believed would be a short respite before returning to the battlefields to continue her work. But there was no going back.

"She is in many ways one of the First World War's casualties," said Foss. "She was a casualty the way that many, many people who were not part of the military were casualties, whose lives were simply never the same again."

In 1923, Hamilton suffered a nervous breakdown. She struggled with deep fear and paranoia and was consumed with worry about the fate of her paintings. She was determined to bring them home to Canada, yet didn't have the funds to do so. 

She never made any money from her battlefield paintings, but that was deliberately so.- Irene Gammel

With money earned making hand-painted women's scarves, Hamilton at last managed to return to Canada in 1925 and began the search for an institutional home for her battlefield works. The next year, she donated the collection to The Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa, now Library and Archives Canada, where they remain to this day. 

"She never made any money from her battlefield paintings," said Gammel, "but that was deliberately so. To her, this was a kind of sacred enterprise. She said, 'It's for Canada I painted them, and Canada will have them.'" 

Battlefields from Vimy Ridge, Lens-Arras Road (1919). (Library and Archives Canada)

Hamilton spent the last 25 years of her life in Vancouver. This last chapter was marked by constant struggle. As Gammel noted, "She was poor, she was alone, she was going blind. She was living on social assistance." 

Yet she continued to paint. 

Vancouver gallerist Uno Langmann, a devoted and long-time collector of Hamilton's work, said he was moved by her painting Low Tide White Rock Pier (1929). "When artists put love into a painting, you can feel it and you actually meet the artist. It doesn't matter if it's 300 years old or if it was painted last week. It was strictly the power of the painting." 

In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, Hamilton was admitted to Essondale, B.C.'s Provincial Mental Hospital, where she remained for the next three years. 

She died on April 5, 1954. Her ashes were transported to Port Arthur, Ont., now Thunder Bay, where she was buried beside her husband and stillborn son.

An unmarked grave

In 2007, Fred Johnson took a guided cemetery tour in his hometown of Thunder Bay. The guide, local historian Dave Nicholson, stopped in front of a bare, unmarked patch of ground and announced, "this is the gravesite of artist Mary Riter Hamilton."

Johnson was aghast. A former military officer, he had admired the artist's work for years and even owned one of her paintings. And here she lay in an unmarked grave.

"I knew all the work that she had done for the World War One vets. And here she was, unappreciated. I was extremely disappointed. I didn't think that was fair to someone who had ... done all of that for Canada."

Fred Johnson holds his Riter Hamilton painting, Polish POW, 1914-1919. (Submitted by Fred Johnson )

Together, Johnson and Nicholson vowed to put a marker in place. 

Johnson went cap in hand to organizations large and small. He managed to scrape together the necessary funds from a group of donors that included his retired military friends. 

In late 2008, 54 years after her death, Mary Riter Hamilton's name was at last inscribed on a granite stone in Thunder Bay's Riverside cemetery. A dedication ceremony took place that summer. Johnson planted some authentic Flanders poppies, and has done so every year since.

In 2020, thanks in large part to Johnson's lobbying efforts, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp of Hamilton's Trenches on the Somme (1919). It is an image of Flanders poppies growing in a chalk field. 

Canada Post featured Riter Hamilton's painting Trenches on the Somme (1919) on a 2020 stamp. (Library and Archives Canada)

Reflecting on Hamilton's work, Gammel said, "It behooves us [to] look at these paintings and see also what they say about a time in distress."

These paintings give us a way "to grieve mass loss. And I think that's something that is so poignant today, when we are confronted again with mass loss, where it's difficult to keep track of the dead. 

"In a way, she points us to it and reminds us of how important it is to remember the dead."

Guests in this episode:

Dominiek Dendooven is a researcher at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium. He is the author of several books, including Menin Gate and Last Post: Ypres as Holy Ground (De Klaproos, 2003).

Brian Foss is a professor of art history at Carleton University in Ottawa. He is the author of the e-book Homer Watson: Life and Work (Art Canada Institute, 2018) and the monograph War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain 1939–1945 (Yale University Press, 2007). He is co-editor of The Visual Arts in Canada: The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2010). 

Irene Gammel is the author of I Can Only Paint: The Story of Battlefield Artist Mary Riter Hamilton (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020). Gammel is professor of art, culture and literature at Ryerson University in Toronto and is the director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre. 

Catherine Speck is an adjunct professor of art history at the University of Adelaide and a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of Painting Ghosts: Australian Women Artists in the Two World Wars (Thames and Hudson/Craftsman House, 2004).

Special thanks to: 

Fred Johnson
Uno Langmann
Ronald Riter
Lorna Stevens
Cameron MacDonald
Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre
Library and Archives Canada

* This documentary was produced by Alisa Siegel.

*Correction: The painting For What was mistakenly attributed to Arthur Lismer in our documentary, Artist, Witness, Woman: Mary Riter Hamilton. The 1918-1919 oil on canvas was in fact painted by Frederick Varley. The painting may be viewed here.


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