Mary Riter Hamilton
In Episode 29, we learn about a female painter, who captured the landscape of WWI right after the war and the stamps Canada Post recently released to honour her.
Episode released November 10th, 2020. Subscribe for free to the podcast here.
Mary Riter Hamilton was born in Teeswater, Ontario in 1867 (although some records suggest she was born in 1873). What is known is her early years, her family moved to Clearwater, Manitoba. In her later teens she went to Emerson, Manitoba, which is on the American-Canadian border, because her brother was working there. She also showed early in her life, a joy of art and would work as an apprentice of a milliner — which is a person who designs and makes hats.
In 1889 she married Charles W. Hamilton and they would move to Port Arthur, which we now know as Thunder Bay.
Charles would become a “leading merchant” running one of the town’s general stores. As the wife of a successful businessman, she pursued her art passion and self-taught herself to paint china from magazines. It was a very popular hobby, and at the time China painting was socially acceptable, because it allowed women to create artistic objects for the home.
Mary and Charles, shortly after their marriage, would have a stillborn child, and in 1893, only 4 years of marriage her husband passed away. Mary was now widowed at a young age of 26, and far from family. With his death, she inherited a certain amount of financial freedom from selling their business.
Mary decided to head to Winnipeg where she had family members, and this is also where her official art career began. To make a living, Mary opened up a China painting school, which was relatively successful. Eventually she moved on to painting in watercolours and oils.
Along with this money, and the small wealth she had inherited from her husband’s estate, she began to take professional training in painting seriously and continue to pursue her artistic passions. Her passion to become an artist led her to travel to Toronto in 1894 to study with E. Wyly Grier, a well-known portrait painter, and with George Agnew Reid and his wife, Mary Hiester Reid.
In 1901, she had the opportunity to travel to Europe and to study there. She went with two other young women from Winnipeg. One who was to study violin and her cousin who was a chaperone. The other benefit, and as some historians have suggested, it gave her a chance to be exposed to the art museums, and of course study art from the great in Europe. Eventually Mary would make it to Berlin, and for two years there she studied with Franz Skarbina, an Italian landscape artist. When her other young women travel companions came back to Winnipeg in 1903, Mary Hamilton would go on to Paris where she would continue her art studies including under several well-known artists including Jacques-Emile Blanche and Paul-Jean Gervais. She also studied at the Académie Vitti in Paris and would also spend time in Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain learning her craft.
Unfortunately she had to return to Winnipeg in 1906, because of her mother’s failing health. She stayed in Winnipeg for a year where, and according to the record, she had a “large class of pupils” who came to learn from her. At the same time she took the opportunity to have exhibitions of her work in Winnipeg and Toronto. By 1909 her work began to get recognition. Her painting, Les Pauvres, was displayed at The Salon which meant acceptance by the French Academy.
She returned to Winnipeg in 1911 due to her mother’s failing health again. This time her mother would not recover. However, Mary stayed in Canada afterwards.She put together a show of a hundred and fifty works which were seen in galleries in Toronto at the end of the year, and in Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Calgary during 1912. The exhibitions were highly successful according to reports at the time. Dana Gibson, the American artist, viewed the paintings in Ottawa, and said that they were “positively marvellous” and “to the credit of an artist whose work is bound to become world famous.” The Montreal Star said “the only criticism which might apply is that her work is just a little in advance of the time. And yet this is not to blame; it may be almost called encouragement.”
While in Winnipeg for this go around, she intended to produce a Canadian landscape series which she could exhibit in Paris. She went to Alberta where she painted scenes of mountains and lakes, and portraits of local Indians which, after successful exhibitions in Calgary and Winnipeg, were then sent off to France.
She then made her way to Victoria, British Columba, where she would unexpectedly stay for five years as a result of the war in Europe. This prevented her from returning to Europe and more specifically her base in Paris.
While in Victoria she became involved in the war effort and volunteered for a number of charitable operations. She also taught painting and also took whatever portrait commissions came along, including some of the Lieutenants Governor of British Columbia. However, the sales of her private works were never enough to allow her financial security and, as she said following an exhibition in Vancouver, “artists, like other people, must live and yet it is almost impossible to live in Canada by art alone. Not only is it a matter of money, but of appreciation.”
On top of this, she was blocked by her gender. For example in 1916, Lord Beaverbrook, (also known as Max Aitken) a Canadian newspaper mogul, established the Canadian War Memorial Fund. It was Canada’s first war art program, and it established the idea of using artists to depict Canada at war, through various mediums including art. Mary Riter Hamilton applied to be a documentary artist and to go paint the scenes during the war, but she was ultimately turned down. The artists that were appointed were all men.
As fate would have it, one of the people she would get to know in Victoria was a man named J.A Paton, who had been a soldier in the war, had returned and was himself an amputee. Paton was involved in founding an organization called the Amputation Club of British Columbia — which today we know as The War Amps. At this time, it was a veterans support organization. The idea was to provide assistance to soldiers returning, particularly those that had been amputees as a result of the war. They provided some education, some opportunity to retrain these men. Also, some social support for them, and the camaraderie with others of learning to cope with life now as a wounded and amputee soldier.
The club was also producing a magazine called The Gold Stripe and in 1919, Mary Riter Hamilton got a partial a commission which got her back to France, and provided her with the opportunity to create works of art to document the scenes these men had seen and to show Canadians back home what had been experienced in a way by their brave men who fought in the war.
And because this could only be done before reconstruction started, she left immediately. Her work concentrated on the main sites that Canadians would know. Passchendaele, Vimy, the Somme, places that had been in the news back in Canada. At first she lived with the remaining Canadian military contingent in Arras but, when they departed, she was on her own with the Chinese workers hired to clear the battlefields as her only companions. These men had the appalling task of burying the dead, removing unexploded shells, clearing roads and waterways and restoring some sort of order to the land before it could return to normal.
As she is quoted as later saying “I made up my mind that where our men went under so much more dreadful conditions I could go and I am very proud to have been able even in a small way to commemorate the deeds of my countrymen, and especially if possible to lend a helping hand to the poor fellows like those of the Amputations Club [sic] who will be life-long sufferers from the war. It is fortunate that I arrived before it was too late to get a real impression.”
Let’s recall, too at this time, she wasn’t a young girl. She was in her early 50s. The conditions were brutal for her. She lived in a tin hut at first, and then into makeshift shelters. The food was hard to come by and the weather hostile. She was left emotionally and physically drained. Mary also had to paint with whatever materials came to hand.
Between 1919 and 1922, she painted more than 300 images in the uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous conditions of the former Western Front. Also when you have a chance to look at the works you notice, her work is not cold or dark — you get a sense from her paintings there is a sort of optimism or rebirth even with crosses and flowers placed in an area of destruction.
Her work would be exhibited both Vancouver and Victoria in 1920, as well as being published in the Gold Stripe . While they were well received, her biggest successes were in France and Britain. She had exhibitions at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 1922; and in Amiens and then in London at Surrey House. At the Somme Memorial Exhibit she was awarded the purple ribbon of Les Palmes Academiques, the Order of Public Instruction. It’s the second highest honour in France below the Légion d’honneur. She was the first Canadian to receive it. Nobody knew much about this in Canada because she wasn’t as famous in Canada. Her battlefield art went on to win more awards including the gold medal at the International Decorative Arts Exhibition of 1925.
She stayed on in Europe after completing her work , but again she had financial difficulties. Although she had offers from some to purchase her battlefield pictures, in Europe, she did not sell them. She also became ill and partially blind, due to the rough conditions she endured on the battlefield. She was forced to take up the decorating of “dress accessories” in order to obtain enough money to return home.
Near the end of 1925, she packed up 227 of her works when she finally managed to pay for passage and get home. She had envisioned a national tour of her paintings but it didn’t happen. She simply couldn’t get the financial support for it. Some suggest at this time people wanted to move on from the war, and so the subject was not invogue.
In the end, she tried to give the works to the National Gallery, but they weren’t accepted either. However, through her connections, she made contact with Arthur Doughty, the head of the Dominion Archives at that time — which we now know as the Library and Archives Canada. By 1926 all was arranged and she gave the works to Canada for no charge. It held a special place for her that these works would be part of the archives.
As she would remark in letters: “In making a formal deed of gift to the Public Archives of Canada of my collection of battlefield pictures, may I give expression first to my feelings of gratitude and happiness? It is a great honour and privilege to know that the work done amid the inexpressible desolation of No Man’s Land has been considered worthy of a place among the memorials of our Canadian men. The survivors and the fallen. 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.”
Now that her works had a home, she was also home back to Winnipeg. She set up an art teaching operation again. This time it wasn’t very successful so she moved to Vancouver. She again opened a teaching studio and it was a bit more successful. The period after the donation, however, was really marked by illness and by financial instability. By 1948, her health failing to such an extent she would give up her studio. She would die in Vancouver a couple of years later in 1954 at the age of 81 and be buried next to her husband Charles in Thunder Bay.
Commentators have noted, that one of the reasons Mary Riter Hamilton was not known outside of some specific circles is that most of her art is not publicly out there — for example at the War Museum or at the National Gallery. If you think about it, the majority of the work is in an archival documentary place. I think this is why it’s so exciting, she is now getting some recognition, by being featured on Canadian stamps.
Speaking of which. Now let’s look at the stamp Canada Post released to celebrate the work of Mary Riter Hamitlon. The stamp was released this year on October 28th 2020. The stamp is of the painting called Trenches on the Somme. It was painted in 1919 and is part of the Library and Archives Canada collection Mary had donated.
Let’s look closer at it. The painting exhibits a trademark of many of her war paintings, where Mary often puts the viewer inside a trench. What else do we see? Looking at the painting we see the white chalk of the trench walls of the Somme.
This is not snow as I first assumed, but Somme was a terrain primarily made of chalk and because of this actually, a sector of British trenches was nicknamed “White City”. Along these white chalk walls of the trench, instead of the blood red of a battlefield we see wild poppies growing. It has a major significance for Canadians, actually for many in the commonwealth. Today, the poppy is the official symbol of remembrance, hope and to never forget. Even though the poppy was only adopted as such in 1921 it was already well known unofficially at that time by the famous poem by John McRae — we’ve covered that story in another episode, which I hope you’ll check out.
Now let’s look at how you can buy this stamp. There are two stamp offerings from Canada Post. The stamp is available in a booklet of 10 Permanent™ domestic rate stamps, and is the work of Montréal-based graphic designer Réjean Myette. 130,000 booklets are available and it was printed by Canadian Bank Note. The stamp is also available as an Official First Day Cover. 7000 of which were printed, and it’s cancellation at Teeswater Ontario, Hamilton’s birthplace. The pictorial cancel features a silhouette of a painting perched on an easel.
This stamp truly is a piece of art, and a great remembrance for all those who sacrificed their lives in the great war. More importantly, it’s wonderful that another generation gets to learn about Mary Riter Hamilton and the great sacrifices she made to document the great war where a generation perished. Get your copy here.
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