#100DaysofVimy – March 22nd, 2017

Each Wednesday we will highlight the women of the First World War. Today:

Mary Riter Hamilton

Trenches On The Somme
“It seemed to me that something was in danger of being lost.” – Hamilton, 1926.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-38.

Mary Riter Hamilton was born in Teeswater, Ontario and raised in Clearwater, Manitoba. Prior to the First World War, Mary studied art and painted in Europe, gaining considerable attention.

At the outbreak of war, Mary was in Canada, where she continuously attempted to gain permission to return to Europe as an official war artist for Canada. Finally in 1919, Mary returned with the task of  producing paintings on behalf of the War Amputations of Canada, providing them for “The Gold Stripe”, a veterans’ magazine.

Mary Riter Hamilton with Richard Wallace in front of a bombed-out church, France, ca. 1919-1922.
Courtesy Ron Riter & Library and Archives Canada.

From 1919 – 1922, Mary produced approximately 300 paintings, enduring harsh weather, makeshift shelters (at times living in old dugouts) and poor food in a war-ravaged countryside. When she returned, Mary was physically and emotionally drained, unable to ever regain the intensity with which she had painted during those three years. In a final gesture, Mary refused to sell her paintings, instead donating them to the National Archives (now Library and Archives Canada) ensuring that they remained the possessions and memories of all Canadians.

Of her need to visit Europe and record the scenes she saw, Mary said:

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.
(Letter from Mary Riter Hamilton to Dr. Arthur Doughty, Dominion Archivist, 27 July 1926).

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