Mary Riter Hamilton was a fearless, trailblazing artist who left a remarkable and moving wartime record for her Canadian countrymen. After early instruction in Toronto, and leading a china-painting studio in Winnipeg after the death of her husband in 1893, Hamilton spent the first years of the twentieth century training in Europe, initially in Berlin, and then at the Académie Vitti in Paris. She returned to Canada in 1911, and her reputation grew steadily through successful exhibitions in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Calgary.
When war broke out in 1914, Hamilton was determined to play her part. She urged the Canadian War Memorials Fund to send her to Europe as an official war artist, but was repeatedly denied the opportunity: men could paint on the frontlines, but women artists were confined to the home front. After the Armistice, however, Hamilton received a commission from the Amputation Club of British Columbia to paint the devastating aftermath of the war for their veterans’ magazine, The Gold Stripe. Painting en plein air under the harshest conditions, quickly and on a small scale in order keep mobile, and in most cases well before any reconstruction had begun, she produced a visceral and harrowing archive of a decimated and sorrowful landscape. For three years she painted prolifically, her evocative smears of paint capturing scenes of churned up earth, makeshift cemeteries, ghostly and still-smoking forests, cold, stagnant puddles, teetering church ruins, brooding skies, and wet, slow-moving crowds. But she also painted colourful moments of hope and renewal: a springtime garden; a lovingly placed wreath; crisp, proud flags fluttering in the wind.
The present Lot shows the annihilated town of Arras in northern France, shortly after the fighting ended. Barbed wire collects in the foreground, while the saddest horizon is defined by the ruined silhouette of the Hotel de Ville.
Hamilton’s three years on the battlefields left her drained and dispirited. She never painted seriously again, although the collection she donated to the National Archives of Canada remains one of the most poignant, sweeping, selfless and exhilarating wartime memorials from the period.
Acquired by Dr Anthony Scott Parker of Severn Lodge, Alvington, Gloucestershire, in the 1920s and thence by descent.