Why would a 50-year-old Canadian artist with a successful career and many lucrative portrait commissions go to Europe and spend six years creating paintings of abandoned World War I battlefields?
That is exactly what Mary Riter Hamilton did.
Mary was born in Ontario but moved to Clearwater Manitoba as a teenager and found herself an apprenticeship in a millinery shop. When the millinery owner moved to Port Arthur Ontario Mary went with her and it was there she met Charles Hamilton who owned a successful dry goods business. They married in 1889 but four years later Charles was dead and Mary, his heir was suddenly a wealthy woman.
She moved to Winnipeg, opened an art studio and gave lessons teaching women how to paint china. Later she studied art in Europe where her work was displayed in the Paris Salon, quite a feat for a woman.
In 1906 Mary returned from Europe briefly for a Winnipeg exhibition. Journalists used Mary’s work as an example of how the arts might enrich citizens’ lives and exhorted readers to consider opening a city art gallery.
Mary mounted another Winnipeg exhibit in 1912 and in press interviews insisted it was high time Winnipeg had an art gallery. In December of 1912, the Winnipeg Art Gallery opened. Many think Mary deserves some of the credit for that happening.
Mary moved to Victoria, British Columbia. She did very well in the next eight years, teaching, exhibiting, making connections with influential people, and garnering lucrative financial remuneration for painting portraits. She was awarded impressive commissions.
Then in 1919 at age 50, Mary decided to go back to Europe this time to paint abandoned World War I battlefields. She lived in deplorable conditions as she painted the scarred and decimated landscapes of Belgium and France which the armies had left behind. She had no official status or income which was only granted to male artists.
She lived in a tin hut and painted outside in all kinds of weather, surrounded by unexploded artillery shells and collapsing trenches. She even survived an attack by bounty hunters. She grew gravely ill and often went hungry but she persevered. Mary would create some 350 artworks in Belgium and France during the next six years.
Mary returned to Canada in 1925 and faced many obstacles trying to get her war paintings exhibited. In 1926 she donated them all to the Canadian Archives. The last twenty- five years of Mary’s life were marked by lost friendships, time spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals and financial instability. She died in Vancouver in 1954.
What drove Mary to leave her safe comfortable life and thriving career to do war paintings and endure the hardships of post-war battlegrounds? I have read many different biographies of Mary and no one really seems to be able to say for sure. When asked, she said it was her duty and honour to commemorate the places where her brave countrymen had fought.