Beyond the trenches
Manitoba artist captured grim realities of aftermath of First World War
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/11/2017 (1969 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
An excerpt from the recently published No Man’s Land: The Life and Art of Mary Riter Hamilton (University of Manitoba Press). By Kathryn A. Young and Sarah M. McKinnon.
For western Canadian artist Mary Riter Hamilton (1868–1954), art was her life’s passion.
Her story 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.
No Man’s Land is the first biographical study of Hamilton, whose work can be found in galleries and art museums throughout Canada.
Riter Hamilton grew up in Clearwater, Man., and called Winnipeg home for many years. Her collection is held at Library and Archives Canada.
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“I made up my mind that where our men went under so much more dreadful conditions I could go and I am very proud to have been able even in a small way to commemorate the deeds of my countrymen, and especially if possible to lend a helping hand to the poor fellows like those of the Amputations Club [sic] who will be life-long sufferers from the war. It is fortunate that I arrived before it was too late to get a real impression.”
— Frederick G. Falla interview of Mary Riter Hamilton, Sept. 10, 1922
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Mary Riter Hamilton travelled to Europe in 1919, supported by the Amputation Club of British Columbia. She would create a visual record of the ravaged countryside before rebuilding could diminish the horror. In defence of her project, she later said:
“The first day I went over Vimy, snow and sleet were falling, and I was able to realize what the soldiers had suffered. If… 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. Every splintered tree and scarred clod spoke of their sacrifice.
“Since then nature has been busy covering up the wounds, and in a few years the last sign of the war will have disappeared. To have been able to preserve some memory of what this consecrated corner of the world looked like after the storm is a great privilege, and all the reward that an artist could hope for.”
Hamilton’s extraordinary commitment took her out to the silent battlefields. The paintings, the product of her effort, were exhibited in the Paris Opera House and in the Salons. Recognition of her work came in the form of a French medal, Les Palmes Academiques, “a distinction never conferred upon a Canadian before.”
Why would Hamilton, with portrait commissions, exhibitions, art classes, and a number of close friends in Victoria, want to return to Europe? What was the impulse that propelled her into an adventure of a lifetime?
Until 1919, her subject matter had been gentle landscapes, interiors, and portraits. There is no evidence in her painting of a need to capture the darker, raw side of life. What drove her forward?
Hamilton’s interest in going to the battlefields began as early as January 1917, when she applied to the Canadian War Memorial Fund (CWMF), established by Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook), a Canadian newspaper mogul living in Britain.
By 1916, Aitken wanted to document Canada’s participation in the war through text, artifacts, and art. To this end, he worked closely with Arthur Doughty, Dominion Archivist, and Sir Edmund Walker and Eric Brown of the National Gallery.
Subsequently, the first official war artist commission was awarded to A.Y. Jackson, a lieutenant in the 60th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), and later a member of the Group of Seven. Arthur Lismer, F.H. Varley, and other recognized male artists were also appointed.
The terms of the fund made it clear that only men would be allowed to go out to the battlefields. A few women were granted commissions, but they were confined to painting the female contribution to the war, such as in the Canadian munitions factories: Henrietta Mabel May, Dorothy Stevens, Frances Loring, and Florence Wyle all worked for the CWMF.
Not to be daunted by the regulations, that January Hamilton first invoked the support of Colonel H. Appleton, “an old friend and admirer of (her) work.”
Appleton went directly to Prime Minister Borden and argued that she “needed the employment that the creation of war records could give her.” His request was forwarded to Walker and then to Brown, both members of the Advisory Arts Council of the CWMF and in charge of the National Gallery’s picture program.
By April, when the artist had not received a reply, she then appealed directly to the fund and asked to be allowed to paint out in the battle region.
She wrote: “There are many subjects that suggest themselves at once for (war) pictures of historical interest, the details for which can only be collected on the spot at the present time. Some of these can be done in rear of the line such as the return after action of troops and prisoners, groups of prominent officers & men. Scenes on won battlefields, and among ruined towns such as Ypres, Arras, etc.; and occasion may offer also (the opportunity) to record the actual scene of battles, bombardments, etc., so that I need never be idle.”
Her request reveals her knowledge of the war, and it offers a clear proposal for how an artist might proceed if authorized to paint in the field. Nonetheless, on 31 May 1917, the Advisory Arts Council denied her request without explanation, but likely because women were not allowed to enter the battle zones. Hamilton did not apply again.
Hamilton’s failed request to join the CWMF in 1917 might have been a motivating factor in her decision to return to France. Throughout the war she had done relief work for the Red Cross and the Belgian consulate. Consequently, she was aware of the devastation, destruction, and loss of life in which more than four million died, one-sixth of those who had served.
As a friend of J.A. Paton, editor of the Gold Stripe, a magazine of the Amputation Club of British Columbia, she also knew the impact of war on returning soldiers who faced physical and psychological trauma.
In all, it seems that she convinced Paton and the Amputation Club of British Columbia to support her while in France with a commission to paint the after-effects of four ruinous years.
She would go to France with a memory of specific battles in the history of the war, such as combat at Vimy Ridge and in the Somme River Valley, and with a dual purpose to commemorate and to record for posterity the effect of these events.
Jay Winter has written that remembrance had become intrinsic to the landscape of northern France and Flanders: “War memorials dot the countryside, in cities, towns and villages, in market squares, churchyards, schools, and obscure corners of hillsides and fields. Throughout the region are larger sites of memory: the cemeteries of Verdun, the Marne, Passchendaele and the Somme.” In turn, Mary Hamilton would memorialize many of them in her canvases.
Hamilton’s battlefields were those of the Western Front in southwestern Belgium and northeastern France. Throughout the region there were agricultural lands, sand dunes, and flat, reclaimed sea-level territories up to the Belgian coast.
Much of the fighting took place in the valley of the Somme River that winds through rolling hills, marshlands, and swamps from Saint-Quentin in the east, through Amiens, to the English Channel. Between August 1915 and November 1918, Canadians fought in many battles, notably the Battle of Vimy Ridge, from April 9-12, 1917.
While Hamilton’s goal was to commemorate the war through her art, others travelled to the region as pilgrims. Even before the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, as many as 60,000 “tourists” had arrived in France in the summer of that year alone.
Visiting the war zones became an industry, complete with a 1919 Michelin guide to the Western Front, as professionals directed cheap expeditions from England. Historian Jonathan Vance notes that “Canadians were certainly not immune to the appeal of the battlefields, and the Overseas Military Forces of Canada (OMFC) were deluged with requests, such as that of Hamilton, for travel permits to visit the ‘devastated areas,’ as they were called.”
For many, these journeys were spiritual in nature, as visitors travelled to pay their respects to a higher cause represented by the soldiers and the reasons for which they had fought. The war cemeteries, as expected, were often the ultimate destination.
On March 18, 1919, Mary Riter Hamilton set sail from New York for France. She would return to Montreal in December 1925.
During this period she created more than 300 paintings. She sketched in charcoal, chalk, and pencil, and she painted in watercolour and oil on plywood, cardboard, and commercially stretched canvases. Portability of the materials was an important factor in her choice of media.
As Robert Amos has pointed out, “the blasted landscape that she focused on would have mocked a painter with conventional ideas of composition and colour.” She set her easel before shell holes and “ruins beyond romance.”
But surprisingly there were also splashes of colour—town banners and the ubiquitous poppies of those northern graveyards. Indeed, many of the paintings show blue skies, though often subdued.
In Tragedy of War in Dear Old Battered France, c. 1920, Hamilton’s treatment of the cross and the soldier’s remains “portrays horror in its full reality.” The painting is a graphic reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and reveals much about how she was affected by the war and the sights around her.
Yet, the crucifix is not painted into a dark and muddy background, as one might expect. On the contrary, although the scene is stark, with trees stripped of all life, they are rooted in sandy soil highlighted by a ray of sunshine.
A pale grey sky completes the image. The cemeteries were the finality of death—the poppies the beginning of life. Hamilton projected the future in pictures of women making homes from abandoned army huts and workers clearing the areas of conflict.
Past and future — destruction and renewal — were major themes of Hamilton’s war art.