Gassed

7:00 AM

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919
By SARAH XU

One of Sargent’s larger paintings, Gassed measures 231 cm by 611 cm (7 feet 6.9 inches by 20 feet 0.6 inches). The size of the painting makes the group of soldiers almost life-size. I believe the size of the painting just makes the shocking effects of war more of a reality. In 1918, the British War Memorials Committee commissioned Sargent to create an image of the war with a “Anglo-American co-operation” theme. In order to paint an accurate representation of the war, Sargent traveled to the Guards Division near Arras and then observed the American Expeditionary Forces near Ypres. Sargent, a man who had “spent most of his life in a world built on proper routines and schedules,” was not accustomed to the unpredictable, violent environment (Davis 239). But, stepping out of his comfort zone paid off. Sargent personally experienced the exact scene depicted in Gassed, which led him to recreate the powerful moment, even though it didn’t fit under the desired theme. After its completion, Gassed was voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919. Similar to Madame X, the painting received disapproval. E.M. Forster, a novelist, attacked the painting because he believed it was “too heroic” while Virginia Woolf condemned the painting for being “too patriotic”.  It seems that Sargent can never escape the criticism.

The painting focuses on a group of wounded soldiers blindly trudging towards help after a mustard gas attack. Behind them, there is a similar group of wounded soldiers marching in a similar formation. Also in the background, Sargent painted a group of men playing football, despite the warfare around them. They represent a large portion of society, going on with their daily lives and are oblivious to the death and pain around them. The dull, lifeless colors suffocates the painting, allowing the viewer to almost smell the stale air. Although the blind men have suffered severe consequences of the war, they are considered fortunate compared to the piles of bodies on the bottom of the painting. This painting not only displayed the grim effects of war, but it also proved that Sargent had the ability to paint both sides of society, the upper class, but also the common soldier, and both in “powerful, revelatory detail” (240).

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