With its scarlet poppies flourishing amid the chalk-white walls of the trenches, an oil painting by Canada’s first unofficial female battlefield artist is being featured on a new stamp.
In the lead up to Remembrance Day, Canada Post printed a new stamp with an image of Mary Riter Hamilton’s painting “Trenches on the Somme” from 1919.
The work shows what the trenches used during the devastating First World War Battle of the Somme in 1916 looked like three years later, when Hamilton travelled to northern France to paint the battlefield.
“What this work communicates is the end of the war. We can see that this is a trench that has not been used for a while because these poppies have been allowed to grow in it,” Irene Gammel, an English professor at Ryerson University who served as a consultant for the stamp, told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Tuesday.
What is particularly unique about this painting, and of many of Hamilton’s pieces, is their perspective, according to Gammel.
Unlike other wartime artists, who completed their paintings far from the battlefields they glimpsed during brief visits, Hamilton lived and painted from on the sites she toured in France and Belgium after the First World War ended in 1918.
“She puts the viewer right there in the trench. We are with her in the trench itself,” Gammel explained. “She wanted to be close to the soldiers. She wanted to be close to those who had lost their lives.”
Gammel, who has written an upcoming book on Hamilton called “I Can Only Paint: The Story of Battlefield Artist Mary Riter Hamilton,” said the artist completed more than 320 oil paintings, oil sketches, and drawings during the two-and-a-half years she spent visiting those battle sites from April 1919 to November 1921.
“Every painting is a remembering of those who did not come back. Every painting reminds of those who lost their lives. And so in that sense, she conveys a deeply humanitarian and empathic perspective,” Gammel said.
Hamilton was only able to paint the aftermath of the war because she wasn’t allowed to visit the battlefields during the action, despite her repeated attempts to do so.
Gammel said Hamilton applied on multiple occasions to the Canadian War Memorials Fund to serve on the frontlines as a war artist, but she was rejected because she was a woman.
It wasn’t until 1919, when Hamilton secured a commission from the Amputation Club of British Columbia (now The War Amps) to document the devastation from the war for their member publication that she was able to travel to Europe.
‘I CAN ONLY PAINT’
Living on a meagre stipend, Gammel said Hamilton stayed in Nissen huts, similar to a barracks, near the war-ravaged battle sites and she was surrounded by unexploded artillery shells and collapsing trenches as she painted.
“These were these primitive shelters. She also overnighted in some of the dugouts, and she carried her own supplies,” Gammel said. “She really gave us a feeling of what these battlefields looked like and what they felt like and what they smelled like in the immediate aftermath of the war.”
Despite her determination to honour the lives lost during the war by memorializing them through her art, Hamilton suffered immensely during her journey. Gammel said the artist suffered ill health and PTSD after she returned home from the battlefields.
“[It was] the witnessing of death on an almost daily basis and it also meant witnessing the destruction of the landscape, the woods,” Gammel said. “Later on, she would say it was like living in a graveyard.”
In fact, Gammel said part of the title of her book “I can only paint” came from a quote from Hamilton herself about how she coped during that time.
“Mary Riter Hamilton said in one of her letters, ‘I cannot talk, I can only paint,’ and what she meant by that was that she was truly overwhelmed by what she witnessed,” Gammel said. “She didn’t have the words to talk about the surreal scenes that she saw. But what she was able to do was to communicate the destruction by painting.”
Upon her return to Canada, Hamilton’s paintings were rejected by the National Gallery. However, she donated more than 200 of her works to the Dominion Archives, which is now Library and Archives Canada, as a visual record of the cost of war.
Now, a century after she painted in those sombre battlefields, Hamilton’s efforts are finally being recognized with the new stamp.
“She is one of those forgotten artists, I mean, very much neglected,” Gammel said. “I think for the kind of work that she’s done, it’s time that she be given her due, that Canadians recognize her more fully.”
Gammel said Hamilton and her work are significant because she was a female artist who broke boundaries by sharing an intimate and empathetic perspective on the devastating cost of war.
“She helps us see how to deal with death, and especially mass death. It’s an incredibly difficult perspective to take and she dared to take it and she asked us to take it and to look at this.”