- No Man's Land: The Life and Art of Mary Riter Hamilton by Kathryn A. Young and Sarah M. Mckinnon
The title and subtitle of this somewhat sad account of the life and art of Canadian artist Mary Riter Hamilton (1868-1954) succinctly summarize its content. No Man's Land is the biography of a painter whose successes can broadly be associated with women and whose disappointments can largely be associated with men. For Hamilton, these came fast and furious. Married at twenty in 1889, her father died the following year; her only son was stillborn two years later; and her husband died barely a year later. With what little money she inherited, she graduated from millinery and china painting to a noteworthy career as a professional artist, which this book documents in detail. Determined to succeed, Hamilton travelled west from Ontario to British Columbia in search of a living and voyaged east to Europe in search of training and meaningful subject matter.
The book is the product of extensive research begun more than thirty years ago by Winnipeg educator Angela E. Davis (1924-1994), to whom the book is dedicated. It divides broadly into three parts. Much of the early part of Hamilton's story is set against the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario provincial and municipal art worlds of ladies' teas, private teaching, and intimate exhibitions. This section also includes a helpful and extensive analysis of Hamilton's long period of study in Europe. The second part focuses on the six-year First World War art project that obsessed her, while the third part documents the artistic and mental unravelling that subsequently dogged her until her death at the age of eight-five—impoverished—in 1954.
For those of us used to associating First World War art with the cementing of national identity through battle achievements like Vimy Ridge (1917) and the postwar success of the Group of Seven, Hamilton's story forms a necessary and important corrective by showing us how gendered that achievement really was. Compare Hamilton's biography with A. Y. Jackson's, for example. He was a near contemporary, and, like Hamilton, his beginnings were relatively humble; he went to work young in the commercial art business. To improve his skills, like Hamilton, he studied in Europe and, also like her, dreamed of earning his living as a professional artist. A First World War commission from the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) as an official war artist launched his career as a painter and thereafter he mixed usefully with prime ministers, businessmen, gallery and [End Page 453] museum directors, and collectors. Before the war, the clearly accomplished and attractive Hamilton was already mixing with the wives of such people but although they were supportive and happy to pour the tea at her exhibition openings, the usefulness of their sphere of influence in forwarding her career was minimal when contrasted with Jackson's successes. The CWMF turned down her application in 1917.
Nevertheless, the book is careful to show how much of Hamilton's lack of success was of her own making even if it cannot evidentially always account for it. Knowing about her mental health at the end of her life suggests that perhaps some undiagnosed psychiatric condition earlier affected her life choices. Following her husband's death, until she was old when she chose Vancouver as her home, she never settled anywhere for long: in Canada, Victoria for seven years, Winnipeg variously for seven, three, and two years plus another single year; in Europe, Berlin for two and Paris and environs variously for three, four, and six years. Her work was likely affected by her peripatetic lifestyle, some of it being variously described by reviewers as unpolished (p. 61) and unfinished (p. 53).
Following the end of the First World War in 1918, with some limited support from the Amputation Club of British Columbia, Hamilton obsessively painted postwar battlefields for six...