Vimy Week Stories - Mary Riter Hamilton

Date published:

April 2, 2024

Mary Riter Hamilton, was a Canadian war artist born in 1873, who blazed a trail for women in art. After war broke out in 1914, Hamilton sought to find ways to help. She volunteered for fundraising campaigns and began donating money by selling some of her paintings. 

However, Hamilton, who was driven by her deep sense of patriotism, wanted to do more. In 1916 she applied to the Canadian War Memorial Fund which offered artists the opportunity to travel to France and create works of art to commemorate Canadian actions in the First World War.

Dug Out on the Somme (1919) Mary Riter Hamilton. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-3

Unfortunately, Hamilton was rejected from the program simply for being a woman. It was believed that the battlefield was not a place where women belonged. But Hamilton would not let this rejection deter her from her goals.

After the war ended, Hamilton financed her own trip to Europe with the help of the Amputation Club of British Columbia where she would begin capturing the reality of the battlefields in her paintings. Hamilton’s main motivation was to ensure that the friends and families of soldiers in Canada could understand where the soldiers had lived, fought, or even died.

The Sadness of the Somme (c. 1920) Mary Riter Hamilton. Library and Archives Canada / Acc. No. 1988-180-19, item level R5966-19 / e011205200

When reflecting on her first visit to Vimy, Hamilton 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 clot 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 cosecreated corner of the world looked like after the storm is a great privilege and all the reward an artist could hope for”

Sanctuary Wood, Flanders (1920) Mary Rither Hamilton. Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / no d'acquisition 1988-180-21 / e011202176

As we honor Mary Riter Hamilton's legacy during Vimy Week, her canvases endure as testaments to individual commitment and the profound impact of art in shaping our understanding of freedom's cost.


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