Mary Riter Hamilton
No Man's Land: The Battlefield Paintings of Mary Riter Hamilton 1919-1922
Mary Riter Hamilton (1873-1954) was born in Teeswater, Ontario, and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She also lived in Thunder Bay. She studied art in Europe where her paintings garnered considerable attention. She then returned to settle in Canada.
During the First World War, Mary Riter Hamilton actively campaigned to return to Europe as a war artist to document Canada's military contribution. It was not until 1919, six months after the end of the First World War, that Mary Riter Hamilton returned to Europe. She undertook a "special mission" for The War Amputations of Canada (formerly The Amputation Club of British Columbia). Her task was to provide paintings of the battlefields of France and Belgium for publication in a veterans magazine called The Gold Stripe, which was a tribute to those who were killed or wounded in the First World War.
During 1919 to 1922 on the battlefields, Mary Riter Hamilton produced over 300 battlefield paintings. She painted on anything she could get: plywood, paper, canvas and cardboard. Mary Riter Hamilton endured incredible hardships, makeshift shelters, poor food and hostile weather. She lived alone in France in a tin hut amid the Chinese workers hired to clear the Western Front of the debris of war. The conditions were uncomfortable and dangerous due to gangs of "criminals" roaming the region. Her deep desire to document the horror and carnage of war for fellow Canadians eventually left her emotionally and physically drained. She was never able to paint with the same intensity again.
Mary Riter Hamilton refused to sell any of her battlefield paintings, choosing instead to donate 227 canvases to the Library and Archives Canada in 1926. She wanted them to remain in the hands of all Canadians for the "benefit of war veterans, their families and future generations." The War Amps later produced a documentary titled, No Man's Land. This award-winning production tells Mary Riter Hamilton's remarkable story.
Mary Riter Hamilton died in Vancouver in 1954, at the age of 81. She is buried in Port Arthur (now known as Thunder Bay), Ontario, next to her husband Charles. She has left us with clear memories of a terrible war, frozen in time in charcoal, water colours and oils. They capture an emptiness that is hard to describe in words alone.