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John Singer Sargent


John Singer Sargent
  • Date: 1918
  • Style: Realism
  • Genre: genre painting
  • Tag: military-and-soldiers, battles-and-wars
  • Dimensions: 231 x 611 cm
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Gassed (1919) by John Singer Sargent depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918. This is a unique painting in Sargent’s body of work, who is best known for fashionable portraits, such as Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892) and The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant (1899). In May 1918, Sargent was commissioned by the British government to create a large painting for the Hall of Remembrance for World War I. As an American painter, Sargent was asked to create a painting that represented the idea of Anglo-American cooperation. In 1918, Sargent traveled to France with fellow artist Henry Tonks to observe the troops on the Western Front, visiting the Guards Division at Bavincourt and the American Division at Ypres. Sargent struggled to find a suitable subject for the painting, he wanted to paint an epic showing masses of men, but could not find a scene that featured many British and American soldiers. Sargent considered several ideas before deciding to paint the aftermath of the mustard gas attack he witnessed while in France. He described the incident in a letter to biographer Evan Charteris as ‘one harrowing sight, a field full of gassed and blindfolded men’.

Gassed, a painting of a heroic scale (231x611 cm) shows several lines of wounded soldiers moving toward the dressing station. The scene is dark and tragic: the soldiers blinded by the gas have their eyes bandaged, they hold onto each other as medical orderlies assist them. All around them are bodies of wounded and dead piled on top of one another.

Sargent exposes the reality of war and the horrific impact of chemical weapons, his heroes are helpless and broken men, whose fates are a mystery - will they recover or see again, will they even survive? There is also activity in the background, biplanes flying through the sky and a group of soldiers playing football. Sargent’s painting examines the harsh realities of war: the poor conditions and equipment of the troops and the human suffering caused by the gas attack. The ongoing football match indicates how these horrors have become a constant presence that no longer interrupts the daily routine.

Sargent painting draws on the tradition of heroic paintings: the composition was inspired by the triptych The Battle of San Romano (ca.1435-1460) by Florentine painter Paolo Uccello. Some have also suggested that the central group of figures was inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Parable of the Blind (1568) and Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Burghers of Calais (1884-1889). Gassed was first exhibited in 1919 at the Royal Academy in London, and it was voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts. Although the painting received high praise from Winston Churchill, it also had some notable critics. The novelists E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf both criticized Gassed for being naively patriotic. Today the painting belongs to the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London.

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Gassed is a very large oil painting completed in March 1919 by John Singer Sargent. It depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack during the First World War, with a line of wounded soldiers walking towards a dressing station. Sargent was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to document the war and visited the Western Front in July 1918 spending time with the Guards Division near Arras, and then with the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. The painting was finished in March 1919 and voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919. It is now held by the Imperial War Museum. However, it is currently on display from February to June, in the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

The painting measures 231.0 by 611.1 centimetres (7 ft 6.9 in × 20 ft 0.6 in). The composition includes a central group of eleven soldiers depicted nearly life-size. Nine wounded soldiers walk in a line, in three groups of three, along a duckboard towards a dressing station, suggested by the guy ropes to the right side of the picture. Their eyes are bandaged, blinded by the effect of the gas, so they are assisted by two medical orderlies. The line of tall, blond soldiers forms a naturalist allegorical frieze, with connotations of a religious procession. Many other dead or wounded soldiers lie around the central group, and a similar train of eight wounded, with two orderlies, advances in the background. Biplanes dogfight in the evening sky above, as a watery setting sun creates a pinkish yellow haze and burnishes the subjects with a golden light. In the background, the moon also rises, and uninjured men play football in blue and red shirts, seemingly unconcerned at the suffering all around them.

In May 1918, Sargent was one of several painters commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee of the British Ministry of Information to create a large painting for a planned Hall of Remembrance. The plan was a complement to the artworks commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund since 1916 at the instigation of Lord Beaverbrook who, by 1918, was serving as the British Minister of Information. Other works were commissioned from Percy Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, Henry Lamb, John Nash and Stanley Spencer. The large scale of the works was inspired by Uccello's triptych The Battle of San Romano. The plan for a Hall of Remembrance decorated by large paintings was abandoned when the project was incorporated with that for Imperial War Museum.

As an American painter, Sargent was asked to create a work embodying Anglo-American co-operation. Although he was 62 years old, he travelled to the Western Front in July 1918, accompanied by Henry Tonks. He spent time with the Guards Division near Arras, and then with the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. He was determined to paint an epic work with many human figures, but struggled to find a situation with American and British figures in the same scene. On 11 September 1918, Sargent wrote to Evan Charteris:

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