Mary Riter Hamilton

An Italian Head, n.d., Mary Riter Hamilton, oil on linen, 1981.02.01. Gift of Mrs. Gwen Marsh on behalf of her parents Rev. Dr. & Mrs. Douglas H. Telfer.

Study of a Woman's Face, n.d., Mary Riter Hamilton, chalk on paper, 23 1/2" x 17", 1987.04.01. Gift of Mrs. Thelma Johnston.

Mary Riter Hamilton, 1873-1954

Born: Teeswater, Ontario, 1873

Died: 1954

Nationality: Canadian


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.


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.