Some remember John Singer Sargent for his portraits of the most affluent in society. For many, though, his most memorable painting is his vast canvas showing the horrors of the First World War, in the Imperial War Museum, London: Gassed (1919). As with the work of all war artists, we tend to assume that this shows a real scene from the front, a hideous truth about that war. This article looks at the probable limits of that truth, and how much might be allusion.
Sargent, as an American who had worked much of his career in London, was commissioned by the War Memorials Committee of the Ministry of Information in Britain to paint a large work showing Anglo-American co-operation in the war. This was originally destined for a Hall of Remembrance, which was never built, but which required a very large if not monumental painting. He set off for the Western Front with Henry Tonks, a distinguished British artist, in July 1918, and they visited units near Arras and Ypres.
According to Tonks’ recollections recorded in a letter two years later, they both witnessed the result of a mustard gas attack during the opening of the Second Battle of the Somme on 21 August 1918 (although records suggest that may have been on 26 August). In the late afternoon, they heard that many casualties were arriving at a Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-Sud, so went there. Lines of gassed casualties were being led in, in parties of about half a dozen, with a medical orderly in front. Apparently, Sargent was “struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes.”
Likewise, Tonks made sketches, as a result of which he painted his An Advanced Dressing Station in France, 1918 (1918) shortly afterwards.
A very different image from Sargent’s, it shows one of the lines of gassed casualties in the centre of the painting, amid the more general carnage and chaos that you would expect of an advanced medical facility during such a battle.
When Sargent came to work on his large and epic painting for the commission, he apparently had the idea of a work involving “masses of men”, along the lines of Signorelli’s fresco The Damned (1499-1505). He feared that trying to combine separate images of British and American troops in such an epic would look “like going to the Derby.”
Sargent’s solution was to borrow from Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), taking the lines of casualties that he had seen, and making them the central theme of the painting.
He wasn’t just alluding to Brueghel, but to Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Daphnephoria (1874-76) too, and to Leighton’s earlier Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence (1853-55), below.
This change to his commission required the approval of the War Memorials Committee, which he obtained before he started work on the painting in his studio in Fulham, London, in late 1918.
I don’t know exactly when Sargent made each of the pencil sketches for his painting, but some may have been made near Arras, and others were clearly based on the professional models who he employed in his studio.
Many, like Study for Gassed Soldiers (1918), show details of different passages for the final painting, and could have been made in Arras or Fulham.
The most interesting, though, are his assemblies of figures, such as Study for ‘Gassed’ (1918). This particular group was turned into the more distant line of casualties, at the right of the finished work, below.
The Two Studies for “Gassed” (1918) in the Fogg Museum are more compositional in purpose, and show the shape of the final painting starting to form. Note, though, that the nearer line of casualties consists of only six (or seven) figures. In the finished painting, this becomes eleven, and forms the majority of the width of this panoramic canvas.
There are several fascinating details in the finished painting, including the game of soccer taking place in the distance, seen in the detail above. Sargent probably added that as a reference to the activities of normal life, contrasting with the horror that is taking place throughout the rest of the painting.
Most remarkably, there is only one pair of eyes visible in all the soldiers present, in the medical orderly near the head of the second line at the right. He even turned the orderly who is tending to the nearer line of casualties so that he faces away from the viewer. This emphasises the blinding effects of the mustard gas, and develops the painting’s theme of vision and art.
Sargent may well have seen Domenico Morelli’s The Sermon of Mohammed (c 1895), which is remarkable for not showing any faces, and Gassed may thus allude to that work too.
As in his portraits, Sargent’s greatest war painting tempers reality with his allusions to other paintings. I doubt very much that he saw what he painted here, but recomposed those elements of truth to produce a powerful masterpiece. That’s what make Sargent so special.
Wikipedia on this painting.
Redford, B (2016) John Singer Sargent and the Art of Allusion, Yale UP, ISBN 978 0 300 21930 2.