Mary Riter Hamilton: Traces of War

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


In the aftermath of the First World War, the victory celebrations ended and Canadians mourned their personal sacrifices. A Canadian artist, Mary Riter Hamilton, traveled in Europe for the next few years to the motionless scenes of battle on behalf of a veteran’s magazine to paint over 300 indelible pictures of the destructive consequences of war.


Mary Riter Hamilton (1873-1954), was born in Teeswater, Ontario, and raised in Clearwater, Manitoba. She studied art in Europe, where her paintings garnered considerable attention and then returned to 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. Not until 1919, six months after the end of the First World War, did Mary Riter Hamilton return to Europe. She undertook a "special mission" for the War Amputations of Canada. Her task was to provide paintings of the battlefields of France and Belgium for publication in a veterans' magazine, The Gold Stripe. She subsequently stayed in Europe for several years, producing over 300 battlefield paintings during the years 1919 to 1922.

Mary Riter Hamilton endured incredible hardships: makeshift shelters, poor food and hostile weather. 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 the canvases to the National Archives (now part of Library and Archives Canada). She wanted them to remain in the hands of all Canadians for the benefit of war veterans and their descendants.

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