The imagined and real (in italics) words of Mary Riter Hamilton – a Canadian artist who travelled (1919-1922) to the WW1 battlefields in Flanders (Belgium) and France after the Armistice. Her commission was to capture the war-smashed landscape as: nature has been busy covering up the wounds, and in a few years the last sign of war will have disappeared. To have been able to preserve [a] memory of what this consecrated corner of the world looked like after storm is a great privilege and all the reward an artist could hope for. 1 Her work included images of civilians seeking “normalcy”, the celebrations large and small of life after devastation.
10 April 1920
I rest my easel against the road-side greenness. The Fleure family pose graciously permitting me to paint their new home. Curtains add domesticity to the army tin hut. I too know this abode; when fortunate, I have the clatter of Flanders rain against the roof. This is a female domain; as with our brave Canadian sons, their fathers, brothers, sons have been swept away. Truly it is a lost. Grand-mere Fleure remarked when I praised the bright growth across the road: “Our tears water the flowers still.”
31 October 1920*
With reverence, I sit before the Passchendaele Memorial; testament to the Canadian fallen. Men and officers who gave their lives in those dark days. Here, places watered with the best blood of Canada might be only names and memories lest I do not preserve them. [T]he spirit of those who fought and died seemed to linger in the air. 2 Their comrades have placed, with reverence, the detritus of the battles: helmets and rifles. These tributes bring to me tears and yet pride swells within me.
My sponsors will be encouraged that I am adapting well to the lack of supplies – cardboard from the kind supply sergeant those months ago keeps my brushes alive. Alive in the land of the dead.
* I have a special connection with the battlefields of Belgium. On this date, in 1917, during the Second Battle of Passchendaele, my great-uncle Earle went missing, presumed dead in the bloody mud of No Man’s Land. His body was never found.
18 September 1921
Voices of Chinese labourers* remind me of my studio life in Victoria. Trips with Susanna to Chinatown; our exotic adventures to eat noodles and ponder wares of the herbal medicine shop. Oh, Susanna.
To . . . [be] able to preserve some memory of what this consecrated corner of the world looked like after the storm is a great privilege and all the reward an artist could hope for,3 there are times my will is weak. My frozen fingers make me long fondly for your companionship and for home. Two years seem like decades. But there is so much to capture; to portray. There is no doubt about the magnificent ability of our fighting men and I fairly ache to get to the scene of their heroic exploits 4, even as my hands and back ache.
* on the role of Chinese men in WW1 and beyond, see, for example, Wikipedia; “The Surprising Role China Played in World War One,” Smithsonian Magazine; “First World War’s Forgotten Chinese Labour Corps to Get Recognition at Last,” The Guardian.
As often happens, while researching a post on Molly Bobak, the first officially commissioned female war artist (WW2), I discovered much more. A “hidden history:” the story of women artists lending their skills to document WW1.
The Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) was established under the oversight of the War Records Office of the Canadian Army in 1917. The goal of the fund was to commission “suitable Memorials in the form of Tablets, Oil-Paintings, etc. [. . .] to the Canadian Heroes and Heroines in the War.” 5 Only male artists were permitted to go overseas. The few women who received commissions from the CWMF, painters Henrietta Mabel May, Dorothy Stevens, and sculptors Frances Loring, and Florence Wyle, were confined to painting the home front contribution of women to the war effort such as work in the munitions factories. Henrietta May’s Women Making Shells showcases the way women stepped into the work force, as part of mobilization of civilians for the war effort. Women, painting the domestic “home front” also received commissions from non-military organizations such as the National Gallery (of Canada).
Born in Ontario, and raised in Manitoba, Mary Riter Hamilton (MRH) always had a flair for art. Widowed at 22, she took up her dreams, and went to Europe to study painting. Returning to Canada prior to the war, she cobbled together a living in Victoria, BC. She longed to become a war artist, and repeatedly petitioned the CWMF for permission to return to Europe to create battlefield paintings. Rebuffed each time, she immersed herself in military knowledge and waited.
Her opportunity came through the Amputation Club of British Columbia. H. F. Paton, a Vancouver publisher, was compiling stories, photographs and memorabilia from the war for The Golden Stripe with proceeds to go to the Club. MRH, having done charitable work for the organization, was commissioned to paint Flanders and Belgium as it recovered from the Great War: “I go to Europe in order to paint the scenes where so many of our gallant Canadians have fought and died, because this can be only done successfully before the reconstruction of France and Belgium . . . [I]t seemed to me that something was in danger of being lost.”6
It was not an easy commission. She suffered many of the same deprivations as Canadian soldiers during the war and the Belgium and French post-war population: inadequate shelter; poor nutrition; harsh weather; a deadly landscape of unexploded ordinance and landmines and the raw scars of war. She hiked miles along mud-engorged roads, setting up her easel to capture, in her unique impressionist style, emotionally challenging and charged images. She used what ever materials were at hand: canvass; cardboard; wooden planks; scraps of paper. Choosing between paying for paints and brushes (from her own dwindling supply of money) or food. She created over 350 artworks between 1919 and 1922, the largest collection of WW1 paintings by a single artist. 7
She spend several years in French and British hospitals due to physical exhaustion including a stay in Paris in 1925. Here, to earn money, she painted scarves She won a gold medal in the International Decorative Arts Exhibition for one of her creations.8 Her time on the battlefields, and her commitment to her artistic goals, left her emotionally and physically drained, never able to paint with the same intensity.9
From 1928 to her her death in 1954 in the Essendale psychiatric hospital, she was in and out of hospitals and psychiatric intuitions in Canada. She was able, at times, to establish studios and teach painting, despite her health — especially worsening eye damage.
Critiques of her life after the battlefield vary. Some posit that, with Canadian society’s collective desire to put the war years behind them, there was no interest in her paintings – therefore, unable to sell or exhibit them, she donated them to the National Archives. “I painted them for the men, and they must have them.” Other writers laud her intentions, suggesting she refused to sell these paintings, wanting them to “remain in the hands of all Canadians for the benefit of war veterans and their descendants.”10
No Man’s Land: The Life and Art of Mary Riter Hamilton, Kathryn A. Young and Sarah M. McKinnon (University of Manitoba Press, 2017) and No Man’s Land, a short film produced by War Amps of Canada (an outgrowth of the War Amputation Club) highlight MRH’s life narrative.
1 Mary Riter Hamilton, in an interview with Frederick G. Falla, The McClure Newspaper Syndicate (release: 10 September 10, 1922): various on-line sources
2 “Traces of War, Mary Riter Hamilton,” Library and Archive Canada.
3 “Traces of War, Mary Riter Hamilton,” Library and Archive Canada.
4 Mary Riter Hamilton, interview with Anne Anderson Perry, Western Women’s Weekly, February 1, 1919.
5 Samantha Burton, “Representing the Home Front: the Women of the Canadian War Memorials Fund,” Canadian Encyclopedia.
6 Letter from Mary Riter Hamilton to Dr. Arthur Doughty, Dominion Archivist, 27 July 1926, Library and Archives Canada.
7 “Beyond the Trenches,” Winnipeg Free Press.
8 Burton, “Representing the Home Front,” Canadian Encyclopedia.
9 “First World War,” Library and Archive Canada
10 “Mary Riter Hamilton” Podcast, The Discovery Blog,
Canadian Encyclopedia, Samantha Burton, “Representing the Home Front: The women of the Canadian War Memorial Fund,”
Canada’s History, “No Man’s Land: The Life and Art of Mary Riter Hamilton.”
Galleries West, “Painting Soldiers’ Ghosts.”
Library and Archive Canada, “Traces of War:The Art of Mary Riter Hamilton.”
The Discovery Blog, “Mary Riter Hamilton.”
Winnipeg Free Press, “Beyond the Trenches.”
Kathryn A. Young and Sarah M. McKinnon, No Man’s Land: The Life and Art of Mary Riter Hamilton.