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.
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.
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.
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.