• – Prama Ghosh and Saradia Chatterjee

“Older men declare war. But is the youth that must fight and die.”

Herbert Hoover.

The First World War is deemed to be one of the most cataclysmic events in human history. It scourged the lives of innocent millions who were subjected to the muscle-flexing of avaricious states. While some ideological pillars of society glorified battle, there were some luminaries who disillusioned the masses through their literary and artistic ventures. Keeping in mind the approaching centenary of America’s involvement in the First World War, our paper aims to explore John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, while also discussing the nuanced reactions of Sargent’s contemporary artists who used the repertoire of their creations as a voice of protest against heinous warfare.

During this period, the paint and the paintbrush campaigned against the horrors and hypocrisies of the war.  This led to a huge number of artists chronicling the events of the war, its abominable atrocities and their impact on social life. Some of the pioneers were John Singer Sargent, Ivan Albright, Cecelia Beaux, Howard Chandler Christy, Carl Hoeckner, Jane Peterson and Norman Rockwell. 

John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was a virtuoso of the brushstroke, and a fashionable painter of the drawing room equipoise.  He was trained under Carolus-Duran after his failed attempt to study in the Academy of Florence.  At the age of 23, he painted a portrait of his teacher Carolus-Duran which met with immense critical acclaim and paved the path for his future works like El Jaleo (The Spanish Dancer), Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, Portrait of Madame X and Gondoliers’ Siesta.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885

El Jaleo (The Spanish Dancer), 1882

Gondolier’s Siesta, 1904

Portrait of Madame X, 1884

In May 1918, Sargent was one of several painters appointed by the British War Memorials Committee of the British Ministry of Information to create a large painting for a planned Hall of Remembrance.  He was asked to portray the Anglo-American spirit in the war. Portraying this would require a sight of a mass of soldiers cooperating with each other. He also needed to interact with them to be fully aware of their circumstances. Hence, Sargent, sixty two, travelled to the Western Front in July 1918 with Henry Tonks to spend adequate time with the Guards Division near Aras and the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypress. Even after continuous searching, he failed to find a proper subject for the commissioned painting. Instead he was confronted by three visions—the first, a ‘harrowing’ sight of a field full of gassed and blindfolded men, the second a train of trucks packed with injured soldiers whom he termed as “chair `a canon” and the third was a big road encumbered with troops and traffic.

The ‘harrowing’ sight referred to was the aftermath of a German barrage that Sargent witnessed on 21st August 1918 at le Bac-du-sud in which mustard gas had been used to combat the 99th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division and 8th Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division of the British Army. Moved by the first vision, Sargent started painting Gassed and completed it in March 1919.

-Gassed, 1919

The painting Gassed depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack. The painting measures 231.0 x 611.1 cm (91 x 240½ in; that is, 7½ by 20 feet). The sketch was done in oil. It is now displayed in Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London, England. Sargent used the entire width of the canvas to re-create what he saw at le Bac-du-sud. The setting sun in the backdrop is perhaps the most tell-tale symbol in the painting. The sun is in its last lap, all ready to set on the youth of the ‘Gilded Society’, the so-called victims of the rancorous war, mere playthings in the hands of hostile nations, here demonstrated by the line of the gassed soldiers. Their sightless eyes are covered with strips of cloth as they stumble towards a dressing station, a sort of a tent whose ropes are seen at the far right. Each soldier grasps the shoulder of his companion leading him in the queue while holding his Enfield rifle and useless gas mask. More wounded men lie on either side of the road. The third soldier raises his foot in a dramatic way to negotiate with the duckboard, a powerful treatment of the theme of blindness from Sargent. As a contrast to the marching figures, some men in full gear are seen to be playing a game of football. This represents sheer indifference on the part of the players.  The daily ravages of war have seeped into the routine of these men and the sight of injured soldiers no longer raises an alarm in their conscience. The inherent irony lies in the minute details, such as the color of the sky and the auxiliary anecdote of entertainment in the background. The football game adds a new dimension to the painting by juxtaposing the horror with the pursuit of normalcy, health and leisure. Perhaps, this is also symbolic of the war mongers and political figureheads who designed the texture of battle while never appearing on the front-lines.  

The painting almost parodies a form of military parade where troops and artillery advertise the prowess of a nation. Here, Sargent presents the shrinking and withering of that prowess and its pulverizing effect. The sophisticated cadence, the variation and the pause of every limb and torso, are symbolic of the processions of the Parthenon sculptures of the Ara Pacis, works that Sargent was acclimatised to. Perhaps he was also familiar with Pieter Bruegel’s work The Parable of the Blind and Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.

Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, 1568

Burghers of Calais, 1889

Eleven figures march ahead—is it towards glory? Or has the sun marooned the youth? The painting’s ambiguity is inherent it its simultaneous portrayal of chagrin and an allusion to redemption gained through martial sacrifice. The suffering is portrayed in a strangely serene and dignified manner. The oeuvre of Sargent has borne a dint of positiveness and hope with the exception of Gassed. The dreadful visual seen by Sargent has been transferred to the canvas in an elegant and composed manner warmed by the gilded glow of the setting sun.

The chemical demons, especially the process of applying harmful gas to decapacitate the enemy was in trend during the First World War. Wilfred Owen, a war poet, referred to one such incident in his poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.  A parallel can be drawn between this and Gassed as both deal with the same subject of Gas Warfare, the only difference being the former deals with the incident happening, while the latter with the aftermath of the incident. Owen’s poem describes the plight of a man in the face of chlorine gas attack, unable to put on his mask in time.

“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,…”

Great literary icons also penned down their thoughts regarding Gassed. E.M. Forster wrote :

No one complained, no one looked lousy or overtired, and the aeroplanes overhead struck the necessary note of the majesty of England. It was all that a great war picture should be […] Lady Cowdray and Hon  Mrs. Langman as they looked over the twenty feet of canvas that divided them, were still able to say, ‘How touching’ instead of ‘How obscene.’ (Piette and Rawlinson, 401)

Thus, Forster considered it to be too heroic. With his characteristic perceptivity, Foster shatters the divide between the relationship of aesthetics and politics. Compared with other paintings such as William Robert’s The Gas Chamber (1918) which illustrated the sheer panic of the soldiers or Eric Kennington’s Gassed and Wounded (1918) with its pictorial of pink flesh and gasping mouths, one realizes the aestheticism and pensiveness behind Gassed. Virginia Woolf, in her essay ‘The Fleeting Portrait’, wrote of Gassed that it “at last pricked some nerve of protest or perhaps of humanity”. She objected to the expressionism and over-emphasis of the painting. (McLaurin, 27). Both had one complaint against the painting that it was clean, unlike the battlefield and none looked over-tired or lousy.

William Roberts, The Gas Chamber, 1918

Eric Kennington, Gassed and Wounded, 1918

The significant question here is whether Sargent has produced a picture of undaunted heroism or of the abject misery and futility of tedious battle? Unlike the nihilistic war artists, Sargent rendered certain nobility to the war and to the sacrifice involved, through the painting. It is a masterstroke that lies between distress and calmness, a haunting image of martial sacrifice sanctified by the empathetic brush stroke of Sargent. The row of blind men creates a deep tragic impact, even if restrained, and to any lay person, it is a reminder of the ghastliness of war. The razzmatazz of heroism is done down by the shocking brutality of persistent combat.  The humanistic approach of such paintings consoled, to a certain extent, the traumatized and war bereaved generation, instilling the belief that the world was not entirely bereft of people who saw through the explicit vindications of war. However, the aspect still remains whether art is to serve as the means of political agenda only or be an object of aesthetic appeasement as well; and if so at what political cost? But neither the aesthetics nor the politics have been able to save the population from the atrocious and abhorrent fangs of the war machinery that left behind a huge pile of mentally as well as physically crippled masses. Events like the First World War, put humanity to shame. But every time, humanity is rescued from the cesspool of vices by people who dare to oppose the erring instigators of such events. The achievement of the artist does not lie in dispelling the permeating darkness; it lies in capturing the moment of terror. Sargent has championed this very cause; he has framed the visual horrors of war for posterity to shudder at.

Works Cited

Kim, Jeremy Jongwoo. Painted Men in Britain, 1868-1918: Royal Academicians and Masculinities. Ashgate Publishing, 2012.

McLaurin, Allen. Virginia Woolf: The Echoes Enslaved. Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Piette, Adam and Rawlinson, Mark. The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth Century British and American War Literature, Edinburgh University Press, 2012.