Mary Riter Hamilton: Manitoba Artist 1873-1954
by Angela E. Davis
In 1926, artist Mary Riter Hamilton gave two hundred and twenty-seven of her oil paintings, pastels and drawings to the Public Archives of Canada. The collection had been offered to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, but had been refused and subsequently sent to Ottawa.  Among the works were paintings which made the artist well known and appreciated in Europe and the United States,  and which earned her praise as “Canada’s First Woman Artist.”  She was not, of course, the first woman artist in Canada; there were many others before her. At the time the critics’ praise referred to quality, not chronology. But who today has heard of Mary Riter Hamilton? Where is she in the books of Canadian art history? With the exception of local exhibitions and catalogues, her work and her name are lost to those interested in the history of Canadian art. If, as seems obvious, she was famous at one time both at home and abroad, why has she been ignored?
It seems that there are a number of factors to consider. For one thing she was a woman. For another, she lived in western Canada. Then too, just as she reached her peak of creativity the type of art which she produced began to go out of fashion. All three considerations suggest a fourth which must be made. This is the manner in which traditional art history has been, and continues to be written. By studying individual artists, especially those who were innovators, and by concentrating on iconography and form, traditional art history has removed art from the world in which it was created.  It has studied the “work of art” as an autonomous object to be “appreciated,” analyzed and explained. As Griselda Pollack argues in her essay “Questions for Feminist Art Historians,” it frequently has had “nothing to do with history at all for it amounts only to art appreciation.”  Such questions as “how and why an art object ... was made, for whom was it made, within what constraints and possibilities was it produced ...”  have not been asked, at least until recently.
However, a few historians have recognized the need for an alternative to traditional art history.  They want to see a history concerned with how art is produced, “who and what artists are,” and what factors in society affect the rise and fall of an artist’s reputation.  They want also to see a history which, in the case of women, examines not only why women have been excluded, but also the social factors that explain their exclusion. As Pollack says, “to discover the history of women and art means accounting for the way art history is written.” 
Until recently Canadian art history has been written in the traditional manner. It has concentrated on change and innovation as opposed to continuity. By emphasizing the emergence of a so-called “national” art and those artists responsible for its creation, it has ignored the contribution of many artists who, in their time, were of considerable importance. Mary Riter Hamilton is one of those whose reputation has suffered due to the manner in which art history has been written.
Mary Riter Hamilton was born in Ontario in 1873 and retired to Vancouver in the 1930s. But she grew up in Clearwater, Manitoba (her family having moved there to farm when she was a small child),  and it was to Winnipeg that she always returned after her various sojourns in Europe, which began in 1896. Dr. Ferdinand Eckhardt included her in his definitive exhibition, 150 Years of Art in Manitoba; obviously she can be counted as a Manitoba artist. According to the general surveys of Canadian art history and the major studies of Manitoba history, there was little art and culture in Manitoba during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This conclusion is, however, being revised as more recent research demonstrates the amount of activity which was, in fact, taking place, at least in Winnipeg. Within that activity Hamilton and other women artists played a major role. They were teaching in their own studios or working for graphic art firms; most of the early art associations were founded by women; and by 1913, when the School of Art opened, many of its most promising students, and subsequent teachers, were women.  Winnipeg was not a complete backwater, but for any serious art student of the time, male or female, training had to be taken in Europe. The official training schools of South Kensington in London and the private academies of Julian, Calarossi and Vittie in Paris were full of aspiring artists from all over the world.  All the major artists and teachers in eastern Canada had trained there. Consequently, when Mary Hamilton decided to devote her life to art, she went to Europe.
Her decision to take up a career in painting was taken after a brief five year marriage when she was left a widow at the age of twenty-three.  Sometime before her husband’s death in 1896, she had attended art classes in Toronto at the studio of George and Mary Reid and had also studied briefly with Wylie Grier.  These teachers were all Paris trained and highly respected Canadian artists. They recognized her talent (she had, apparently, “always drawn and painted”) and advised her to go to Europe for training. She went first to Berlin, where she studied under Franz Skarbina, a noted landscape painter. Of this experience she said, “I was not at all sure that my talent was of the worth while order. However, I knew that Professor Skarbina had the reputation of only retaining those pupils who showed talent and after three months trial he told me that I had the gift and would arrive if I kept trying.” After eighteen months in Germany, she went to Paris where she stayed for eight years working with a number of well known teachers, including Paul-Jean Gervais of the Vittie Academy.  In 1905 her first paintings were accepted by the Salon and in the same year a popular French magazine, Pour Tous, reproduced her painting “Les Sacrifice” on its front cover (this was of a goose girl driving home the Christmas geese). It was this work which brought her to public attention in France, although subsequently she became a regular exhibitor at the Salon. 
In 1906 she returned to Canada, apparently to spend time with her mother who was ill.  She stayed in Winnipeg for a year where, according to one source, she had a “large class of pupils.”  At the same time she took the opportunity to have exhibitions of her work in Winnipeg and Toronto.  But in 1907 she returned to Paris for further study and Salon success. In 1911, besides exhibiting with the Salon des Independents and the Salon des Beaux Arts, she was one of the artists chosen for special mention in the international art journal The Studio:
The writer followed this rather fulsome praise by saying “her work in oils is strong and sincere, while her water colours impress one particularly by their charm of tranquility. They show a complete knowledge of the possibilities that lie in this process.”  When the same pictures were shown in Toronto, however, it was the oils which were considered her finest work. 
Later in 1911, Mary Hamilton returned again to Winnipeg to be with her mother. After her mother’s death she stayed in Canada to put together a show of a hundred and fifty works which were seen in galleries in Toronto at the end of the year, and in Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Calgary during 1912.  The exhibitions were highly successful. Dana Gibson, the American artist, viewed the paintings in Ottawa, and said that they were “positively marvellous” and “to the credit of an artist whose work is bound to become world famous.” The Montreal Star said “the only criticism which might apply is that her work is just a little in advance of the time. And yet this is not to blame; it may be almost called encouragement.”  Hamilton herself is quoted as having said:
While in Winnipeg she stated her intention of producing a Canadian landscape series to exhibit in Paris. “Everyone is so interested in this country,”  she said. She went to Alberta where she painted scenes of mountains and lakes, and portraits of local Indians which, after successful exhibitions in Calgary and Winnipeg, were duly sent to France.  Following this bout of work she went to Victoria, where she unexpectedly stayed for five years as a result of the war in Europe which prevented her returning to Paris.
While in Victoria she opened a studio and took whatever portrait commissions came along, including some of the Lieutenants Governor of British Columbia.  But the sales of her private works were never enough to allow her financial security and, as she said following an exhibition in Vancouver, “artists, like other people, must live and yet it is almost impossible to live in Canada by art alone. Not only is it a matter of money, but of appreciation.”  In 1919, however, at the end of the war, she received a commission which would take her back to France, which would provide her with the opportunity to create works of art which would earn her the highest praise, but which, at the same time, would herald her eclipse as a Canadian artist acceptable to critical and public taste.
She was commissioned by the Amputation Club of British Columbia to provide art works for a veteran magazine, The Gold Stripe. This meant a return to France in order, as she said, “to paint the scenes where so many of our gallant Canadians have fought and died.” And because this could only be done before reconstruction started, she left immediately.  Once in France she went to the battlefields of Vimy Ridge and the Somme, living first with the remaining Canadian military contingent in Arras but, when it departed, on her own with the Chinese workers hired to clear the battlefields as her only companions. These men had the appalling task of burying the dead, removing unexploded shells, clearing roads and waterways and restoring some sort of order to the land before it could return to normality. It required great courage, as one writer has said, for a young woman
She worked there until 1922, producing in the process three hundred and fifty pictures. Those of the first year were exhibited in Vancouver and Victoria in 1920, with much ceremony, under the auspices of the I.O.D.E. and the Amputation Club, with reproductions published in The Gold Stripe. They received considerable local acclaim,  but within that acclaim could be seen new attitudes towards art which would affect art in Canada in general and which would influence her future actions in regard to her war paintings. In one of the few discerning reviews of her work, under the heading “War has developed new style in art of painting,” the Vancouver Province art critic said,
The British Columbia exhibitions were the only time any of the pictures were seen in Canada. In 1922 her battlefield collection was exhibited at the Paris Opera House.  One of the larger oils, depicting the market at Ypres, was hung in the April Salon des Beaux Arts, and in aid of a proposed memorial to be erected on the site of the Somme battlefields, a further exhibition was held at Amiens in June.  At the opening ceremony for the Somme Memorial Exhibition, she was awarded the purple ribbon of the order of the Palmes Academique in recognition of her work, and was commended on “her courage in visiting the most dangerous parts of the battlefield” by the President of the General Council of the Somme district.  In 1923 the paintings were shown in London at Surrey House, again as part of the Allied Somme Battlefields Memorial. There they stayed until, in 1926, she gave them to the Public Archives of Canada.
It might be thought, in view of the facts that the decoration she received from the French was “as high a distinction as a woman can receive in France” and that she was “the only Canadian artist who has been so honoured by France,” that her works would be recognized by the Royal Canadian Academy on her return, or by later art critics and historians. In 1924, in fact, one writer suggested that, in view of the finances available for accessions “it is surely not asking the Canadian National Gallery too much to ask its directors to consider the purchase of the whole, or part of this incomparable collection, which ... should be coveted for the place which it occupies in the pictorial history of Canada’s part in the Great War.”  But the Canadian art establishment seems to have been unaware of her activities, even though a number of Canadian artists had taken part in the official Canadian War Memorials programme and that this was considered to be part of an attempt to record Canadian participation in the war. 
Among those artists who were sent to paint in France during the last years of the war were painters who, in 1920, would join with others to become the Group of Seven.  The works they produced are probably indicative of the forces working against Mary Hamilton, although at the time this might not have been obvious. Their paintings, with some notable exceptions, show that their concern was with producing works of art within the Canadian “national” style which they were in the process of creating. Peter Mellen, in his study of the Group of Seven, says that “despite the presence of bloodshed and suffering all around them they showed no inclination to paint it, or to reveal that they were moved by it in any way.”  This sounds like an exaggeration but it does appear as if they looked upon this commissioned work as an interruption to their aesthetic preoccupations and not as an emotional experience. Mary Hamilton, on the other hand, was overcome by the disasters of war. Her paintings, while possessing a sombre beauty, are a record of devastation and sadness. They are painted in muted greys, greens and browns, with subject-matter of crosses, trenches and ruined towns; as one writer noted, “there is no heroism, no sign of a victor or a cause.”  They are works which seem closer to some English art of the second world war than to that of her fellow Canadian artists of the first.  Ironically, it would seem that at the very moment when she began to paint through her emotions instead of her training, a factor which would generally appear to be important in the progress towards “modernity” in Canadian art, she was ignored.
She did not return to Canada until 1926. Although offers to purchase her battlefield pictures were made in Europe, she did not sell them.  She became ill and partially blind, and was forced to take up the decorating of “dress accessories” in order to obtain enough money to return home.  She went first to Winnipeg, establishing a teaching studio which continued until the 1930s, when she moved to Vancouver. Her war pictures could, apparently, have been sold to the San Francisco Art Gallery,  but instead she sent them to the Archives in Ottawa. Her action is considered surprising by one of her biographers, but according to another she only took this route after her collection was refused by the Winnipeg Art Gallery.  No doubt there were understandable reasons; not least was her recognition that she was facing, once again, lack of appreciation. There was a significant difference between the exhibitions in France and England, in official buildings with official recognition, and those in Canada in Navy League Institutes, Arts and Crafts Centres and private homes, complete with tea and “piano selections.” There are records of shows in Winnipeg in 1927 and in Vancouver in 1935 and 1939. But in 1948 she was found neglected and almost impoverished, a discovery which prompted a private show in 1948 and shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1949 and 1952. She died in 1954 and in 1959 a belated retrospective exhibition was held at the Art Gallery of Victoria. In an appreciative review of the exhibition, she was praised as a painter, but also as an artist “deeply involved in the fraying emotions of the First World War.” The critic described how her painting of Vimy Ridge allowed viewers to understand “the deep emotions portrayed by the artist in this moving canvas where the winds blew continuously, even in summer.” 
Mary Riter Hamilton was, obviously, a talented and respected artist for many years. She had followed the same path as many of her Canadian contemporaries, studying and working with teachers in France or England, exhibiting at the Paris Salon or the Royal Academy. She was an international success in Paris even before her battlefield work. Why, after spending almost a lifetime in study and professional activity, has she been left out of the histories of Canadian art? Was it because she was a woman, because she lived in western Canada when not in Europe, or because of changing fashions in art? Perhaps it was all three, but none of these would be crucial if there were an alternative approach to the writing of art history. Canadian art history cannot, in all conscience, ignore the work of Emily Carr or Paraskeva Clark, but it still manages to lump women artists together or note that there were a surprising number of them working in the 1930s.  One should remember that Emily Carr, working on her own in British Columbia, was discovered “almost by accident”  and belatedly accepted by the art establishment because her work was in tune with the ideas of the Group of Seven. Similarly, western artists whether male or female have consistently been ignored by writers on Canadian art, most of whom seem to have been based in the east.
The major element working against Hamilton’s inclusion in the art history texts seems to be that her style of art was going out of fashion, at least in the view of art historians. Many artists, male and female, have been ignored for the same reason. Professor Douglas Cole, in his analysis of the reasons behind the exclusion of W. J. Phillips from Canadian art history, has noted that “art criticism and art historical scholarship have had little respect for ‘laggards’.... The artist is admired more for ... innovation than for ... an ability to sustain tradition.”  The approach has been one in which history is viewed in terms of the present, in which a main concern is to show the processes that have led up to the present, and in which the present is used as the criterion to judge the past. The approach is, as he says, “tinged with a Whig interpretation” of progress, and therefore does not relate art to its social and historical context. Mary Hamilton was not an innovator. She was, instead, part of the accepted academic artistic tradition of her time. She practiced in a manner considered professionally competent and, at least until her war pictures, received considerable acclaim. She was European trained, and respected as an artist of note in Paris and London. Yet she has been ignored.
If one agrees with Linda Nochlin that “art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occurs in a social situation, is an integral element of the social structure, and is mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions,”  then the writing of art history will have to offer an alternative to its traditional format. In the case of Canada an added obsession with the creation of a “national” art has, until recently, encouraged an emphasis on the Group of Seven as a reflection of a developing Canadian consciousness. But the record of the social situation within which Canadian art was, and still is made, has not yet been written. Perhaps when it is, then the contributions of artists such as Mary Riter Hamilton will be interpreted differently.
2. See Mrs. W. Garland Foster, “ ‘Les Pauvres’ and Its Artist,” Museum and Art Notes: Art Historical and Scientific Association of British Columbia, IV, (June, 1929) 65, concerning European offer to buy the paintings and Colin S. MacDonald, A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (Ottawa: Canadian Paperbacks, 1967-1974), pp. 356-357, re San Francisco.
3. Mary Riter Hamilton. Catalogue of an exhibition, 1978 (Victoria: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1978), p. 17 and “Mary Riter Hamilton, Canada’s First Woman Artist,” Calgary Herald, April 24, 1922.
4. Griselda Pollack, “Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians,” Woman’s Art Journal, 4, (Spring/ Summer 1983), 40. See also Linda Nochlin, “Why are There No Great Women Artists?” in Women in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, eds. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran (New York: Basic Books, 1971), p. 490.
7. See, for example, Frederich Antal, “Remarks on the Method of Art History,” Essays in Classicism and Romanticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966) and Teddy Brunius, Theory and Taste: Four Studies in Taste (Uppsala: n.p., 1969).
11. See Angela E. Davis, “Laying the Ground: the establishment of an artistic milieu in Winnipeg: 1890-1913,” Manitoba History, no. 4 (Autumn, 1982), p. 12 and Marilyn Baker, The Winnipeg School of Art: The Early Years (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1984), passim.
12. See J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 209. Also Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), pp. 50-56.
14. Deacon, “The Art of Mary Riter Hamilton,” p. 557. See Rebecca Sisler, Passionate Spirits: A History of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts: 1880-1980 (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Co., Ltd., 1980), p. 82 re the studio of George and Mary Heister Reid.
47. See, for example, Paul Duval, Four Decades: The Canadian Group of Painters and Their Contemporaries: 1930-1970, (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Co., Ltd., 1972), p. 38 and Harper, Painting in Canada, p. 312.Back to top of page