1873 - 1954
graphite on paper
signed and dated 1919 and on verso titled on a label and inscribed "95" and "No 18"
9 x 12 in, 22.9 x 30.5 cm
Estimate: $400 - $600 CAD
Sold for: $750
Ronald T. Riter Collection, The Estate of Mary Riter Hamilton, Vancouver
Irene Gammel, I Can Only Paint: The Story of Battlefield Artist Mary Riter Hamilton, 2020, pages 2, 8 and 72
“If as you and others tell me, there is something of the suffering and heroism of the war in my pictures it is because at that moment the spirit of those who fought and died seemed to linger in the air.”
- Mary Riter Hamilton
After studying in Germany under Franz Skarbina, Mary Riter Hamilton traveled to Paris and studied at private art schools. She achieved recognition in France for her work, exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1905. A second trip to Europe took place to Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Florence, with studies in Holland. Hamilton returned to Canada in 1911.
In 1917 and 1918, Hamilton applied to become an official war artist through the Canadian War Memorials Fund, but was turned down by Edmund Walker, chairman of the National Gallery’s advisory board. Likely the idea of sending a woman artist into danger amid the harsh conditions on the front in World War I was simply unthinkable at the time. However, in 1919, she was commissioned by the magazine The Gold Stripe to document the postwar battlefields in Belgium and France. She was Canada’s first female battlefield artist, revealing that “I came out because I felt I must come, and if I did not come at once it would be too late.” Although Hamilton could not fight, she could portray the deeds of those who did – her commitment to documenting the aftermath of war, and her empathy for what happened, was extraordinary.
She arrived in Paris on April 15, 1919. Although the war was over, soldiers were still there, in the process of demobilization and part of cleanup crews restoring order to the land. It was an unsettled time, with refugees and social unrest the new reality. Hamilton had to gain permission to access the war zone to such locations as the northern and southern district of Vimy Ridge. She slept in abandoned huts and bunkers left behind by the soldiers, painting the remains of trenches, ruined buildings and damaged landscapes, documenting them as they were, not glorifying them. It took courage to go to those battlefield sites. Canadian soldiers in Europe were an important part of the war effort, such as at Vimy Ridge. Hamilton stated, “It was always my ambition to make a collection of paintings of typical Canadian scenes, and as fate would have it some of the landscapes with which the history of Canada will be found up for generations are here in France, 6,000 miles away.” After years of painting under difficult conditions in locations such as Ypres (Belgium) and the Somme, and settings in the far north of France such as Loos, Mons, Cambrai and Bourlon Wood, Hamilton was emotionally and physically exhausted, and she suffered a collapse in summer of 1921. She was admitted to hospital in 1922, and took years to recover.
Hamilton began to exhibit her war works as early as 1919, and in 1920 exhibited war paintings at the Navy League Institute, organized by IODE. In 1922 she had an exhibition of her war art in the Paris Opera House titled Les champs de bataille de la Somme, along with the French official war painter Georges Bertin Scott. That same year she exhibited 100 paintings at the Pantheon: Aux Morts Français et Allies at the Musée de Picardie.
Hamilton made a vitally important contribution to the documentation of the First World War, and a substantial group of her war works, comprised of 227 paintings and drawings, are in the collection of the National Archives of Canada.
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