Gassed (painting)

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Gassed
Painting of a line of soldiers walking apparently blind
Artist John Singer Sargent
Year c. March 1919
Type Oil
Dimensions 231 cm × 611 cm (91 in × 240 12 in)
Location Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London, England

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.

Painting details[edit]

Study for Gassed Soldiers, John Singer Sargent, 1918. Yale Center for British Art

The painting measures 231.0 x 611.1 cm (91 x 240½ in; that is, 7½ by 20 feet). 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, blonde soldiers form 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.[1]

History[edit]

John Singer Sargent. Self Portrait c. 1906.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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:

The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men? Excepting at night I have only seen three fine subjects with masses of men – one a harrowing sight, a field full of gassed and blindfolded men – another a train of trucks packed with "chair à cannon" – and another frequent sight a big road encumbered with troops and traffic, I daresay the latter, combining English and Americans, is the best thing to do, if it can be prevented from looking like going to the Derby.[4]

An American soldier with life-threatening mustard gas burns in 1918.

The "harrowing sight" referred to the aftermath of a German barrage that Sargent witnessed on 21 August 1918, at Le Bac-du-Sud, between Arras and Doullens, in which mustard gas had been used against the advancing 99th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division and 8th Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division of the British Army, during the Second Battle of Arras of 1918.[5] Tonks described the experience in a letter from to Alfred Yockney on 19 March 1920:

'After tea we heard that on the Doullens Road at the Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-sud there were a good many gassed cases, so we went there. The dressing station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, lead along in parties of about six just as Sargent has depicted them, by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly I fancy from their eyes which were covered up by a piece of lint... Sargent was very struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes.'[3]

The War Memorials Committee agreed to change the subject of the commission, and the painting was made at Sargeant's studio in Fulham in 1918-9.[4]

Completion[edit]

Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Parable of the Blind, 1568. The painting is referenced by Sargent's.

The painting was completed in March 1919. It was first displayed at the Royal Academy in London in 1919.[6] It was voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919.[5][7] The painting was not universally liked – E. M. Forster considered it too heroic.[5] It is now held by the Imperial War Museum, along with several charcoal studies for the painting.[8] Other charcoal sketches are held by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. A small 10½ x 27¼ in. (26 x 69 cm) oil sketch, originally owned by Evan Charteris, was sold by Christie's in 2003. It sold for £162,050 ($267,869).[4]

The painting provides a powerful testimony of the effects of chemical weapons, vividly described in Wilfred Owen's poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Mustard gas is a persistent vesicant gas, with effects that only become apparent several hours after exposure. It attacks the skin, eyes and mucous membranes, causing large skin blisters, blindness, choking and vomiting. Death can occur within two days, but suffering may be prolonged over several weeks.[9]

Sargent's painting refers to Bruegel's 1568 work The Parable of the Blind, with the blind leading the blind, It also alludes to Rodin's Burghers of Calais.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Tolson, Roger (2010). "Art from Different Fronts of World War One". BBC. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  2. ^ "'Gassed', by John Singer Sargent". The Guardian. November 13, 2008. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Imperial War Museum. "Gassed [Art.IWM ART 1460]". IWM Collections Search. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c "John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) Gassed, an oil study". Christie's. June 11, 2003. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c Harris 2005
  6. ^ Cox,, PhD,Brian M. (2010). "Torald Sollmann's Studies of Mustard Gas". Reflections. pp. 124–128. Retrieved May 21, 2010. 
  7. ^ Willsdon 2000, p. 123
  8. ^ Imperial War Museum. "Collections Search for "gassed" [by Sargent, John Singer]". IWM Collections Search. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  9. ^ "The Pathological Action of War Gasses - General Considerations". The Medical Front WWI. Retrieved 2011-10-24. 

References[edit]

  • Harris, James C. MD (January 2005). "Gassed". Art and Images in Psychiatry 62 (1): 15–18. 
  • Willsdon, Clare A. P. (2000). Mural painting in Britain 1840–1940: image and meaning (2000 ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-817515-5.  - Total pages: 431

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]