Gassed John Singer Sargent

“In 1918, the British Ministry of Information commissioned the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) to contribute a large-scale work to a planned Hall of Remembrance commemorating Anglo-American cooperation. Travelling to the front in July 1918, Sargent witnessed the harrowing aftermath of mustard gas attacks, which became the subject of this new work, Gassed – a six-metre-long tableau depicting a procession of wounded men stumbling, blindfolded, towards a dressing station.

While this painting, completed in 1919, is not representative of the illustrious portraitist’s oeuvre, it has become widely recognised as an embodiment of the pain of war in a strangely serene and dignified manner. Virginia Woolf, in her essay The Fleeting Portrait, wrote of Gassed that it “at last pricked some nerve of protest, or perhaps of humanity”. It now hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London.”

John Singer Sargent’s painting Gassed hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London; the canvas is over seven feet high and twenty feet long. This impressive painting depicts soldiers blinded by gas being led in lines back to the hospital tents and the dressing stations; the men lie on the ground all about the tents waiting for treatment.

“With mustard gas the effects did not become apparent for up to twelve hours. But then it began to rot the body, within and without. The skin blistered, the eyes became extremely painful and nausea and vomiting began. Worse, the gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane. The pain was almost beyond endurance and most cases had to be strapped to their beds. Death took up to four or five weeks. A nurse wrote:

I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case–to say nothing of ten cases–of mustard gas in its early stages–could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes . . . all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.”

This passage is from John Ellis, Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I, (1976), pp. 66-7.

Who was John Singer Sargent?

John Singer Sargent, the son of an American doctor, was born in Florence in 1856. He studied painting in Italy and France and in 1884 caused a sensation at the Paris Salon with his painting of Madame Gautreau. Exhibited as Madame X, people complained that the painting was provocatively erotic.

The scandal persuaded Sargent to move to England and over the next few years established himself as the country’s leading portrait painter. This included portraits of Joseph Chamberlain (1896), Frank Swettenham (1904) and Henry James (1913). Sargent made several visits to the USA where as well as portraits he worked on a series of decorative paintings for public buildings such as the Boston Public Library (1890) and the Museum of Fine Arts (1916).

In 1918 Sargent was commissioned to paint a large painting to symbolize the co-operation between British and American forces during the First World War. Sargent was sent to France with the British painter, Henry Tonks. One day Sargent visited a casualty clearing station at Le Bac-de-Sud. While at the casualty station he witnessed an orderly leading a group of soldiers that had been blinded by mustard gas. He used this as a subject for a naturalist allegorical frieze depicting a line of young men with their eyes bandaged. Gassed soon became one of the most memorably haunting images of the war.

While in France Sargent also painted The Interior of a Hospital Tent (1918) and A Street in Arras (1918). John Singer Sargent died in 1925

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