Canadian War Museum remembers the resilience of war artist Mary Riter Hamilton

Detail from Trenches on the Somme. Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919. Oil on commercial board. Library and Archives Canada, Mary Riter Hamilton collection. Photo courtesy Canadian War Museum

The axiom “history is written by the victors” is, in essence, a grim twist of the truism “perspective is everything.”

War artists have influenced that perspective, often as a counter to propaganda, even when dispatched by the victors. The art of Mary Riter Hamilton offers insights — both awful and joyful — into war, its aftermath in ways both expected and unexpected, and how individuals and nations show resilience.

Resilience: The Battlefield Art of Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919-1922 is small enough to be a display in the main lobby of the Canadian War Museum. It recounts (with necessary brevity, given its compact space), the intertwined stories of Hamilton — a woman born in Ontario in 1873 and widowed before 1900 — and into what is now known in Canada as the War Amps. The charitable group is celebrating its 100th anniversary of helping amputee veterans.

Hamilton had studied art in Europe, and when the First World War broke out she “actively campaigned” to be sent back as a Canadian war artist.

“What force of will and circumstance drove a woman with … a comfortable life to one of hardship and loneliness in the battle zones of France and Belgium following the Great War?” say the notes to a book about Hamilton, No Man’s Land, written by Kathryn Young and Sarah McKinnon and published by University of Manitoba press. “Art was her life’s passion. Her tale is one of tragedy and adventure, from homestead beginnings, to genteel drawing rooms in Winnipeg, Victoria, and Vancouver, to Berlin and Parisian art schools, to Vimy and Ypres and finally to illness and poverty in old age.”

First Boat to Arrive at Arras After the Armistice. Mary Riter Hamilton, 1920. Oil over charcoal on paper. Library and Archives Canada, Mary Riter Hamilton collection. Photo courtesy Canadian War Museum.

It was not until later in 1919, after the war was officially over, that Hamilton was dispatched to the battlefields, not by the Canadian government but by a new organization known as the Amputation Club of British Columbia, the precursor to the War Amps. The group hired Hamilton to paint post-war scenes for its club magazine, and she rose to the task prodigiously.

“She produced more than 300 impressionistic paintings of scenes in southwestern Belgium and northeastern France: battle-scarred landscapes, commemorations of the lost, and activities signalling a return to normal life,” say the museum’s exhibition notes.

Only 15 of those paintings are included in the exhibition, and it’s that final theme — the signals of “a return to normal life” — that are perhaps her most distinctive.

Canada has an impressive history of war artists, from Group of Seven members A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer to Alex Colville, Pegi Nicol McLeod and many others. Hamilton may not rank among the best by any technical measure, but her small canvases are filled with passion and a driving and ultimately debilitating devotion. “Her deep desire to document the horror and carnage of war for fellow Canadians eventually left her emotionally and physically drained,” says Library and Archives Canada.

She painted the trenches, with perspectives from both outside and inside those terrible tunnels. She painted scenes of the makeshift memorials to the dead left behind by soldiers who survived — one for the 2nd Canadian Division at Vimy Ridge, another of broken, wooden crosses at Arras.

But, as strange as it may seem, her most powerful paintings are the most placid, the ones that show the inexorable march of regeneration. On one canvas, the blood red of a battlefield has been replaced with swaths of wild poppies. Another shows a solitary boat on a river, titled First Boat to Arrive at Arras After the Armistice. And finally, Market Among the Ruins of Ypres, where the stalls are crowded with silhouetted figures, most in black but a few showing resurgent bursts of colour, of red, green, yellow.   

Hamilton’s legacy is in these views of life regenerating, rebuilding, life sprung anew and fresh. Her perspective is on our capacity to recover from horrors previously unimagined, and showing it to us it took a tremendous toll on her.

“She was never able to paint with the same intensity again,” say the exhibition notes. She refused to sell any of her battlefield paintings, and instead donated more than 300 of them to what is now Library and Archives Canada. She died, partially blind, in 1954.

Resilience continues to March 31.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.