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John Singer Sargent | Gassed, 1919

Gassed is a very large oil painting completed in March 1919 by American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).
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

The painting measures 231.0 by 611.1 centimetres (7 ft 6.9 in × 20 ft 0.6 in).
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.


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. 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.

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".
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.

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. It was a very fine evening and the sun toward setting.
The War Memorials Committee agreed to change the subject of the commission, and the painting was created at Sargent's studio in Fulham from late 1918 through early 1919.


The painting was completed in March 1919. It was first displayed at the Royal Academy in London in 1919. It was voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919.
The painting was not universally liked - E. M. Forster considered it too heroic.
Winston Churchill praised its "brilliant genius and painful significance", but Virginia Woolf attacked its patriotism.
It is now held by the Imperial War Museum, along with several charcoal studies for the painting.

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).

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, although rare, can occur within two days, but suffering may be prolonged over several weeks.
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. | © Wikipedia

Gassed, 1919 - cm 231 x 611. Londra, Imperial War Museum - è un grande dipinto ad olio che fu commissionato al pittore Statunitense John Singer Sargent nel 1918 dal governo britannico per onorare i militari che lottarono nella Prima Guerra Mondiale - 28 luglio 1914 -11 novembre 1918.
Esso raffigura le conseguenze di un attacco di gas mostarda sul fronte occidentale nell’agosto del 1918, con una linea di soldati feriti camminare verso un posto di medicazione.

A Sargent fu chiesto un grande dipinto "epico" che avrebbe dovuto occupare la posizione principale di una progettata Hall of Remembrance -Sala della Memoria.
Il pittore consegnò Gassed, che nel 1919 fu votato dipinto dell’anno dalla Royal Academy of Arts di Londra.
Raffigura un battaglione di soldati britannici reduce da un attacco con iprite o gas mostarda, una delle più micidiali armi usate nella Prima Guerra Mondiale. 
L’esposizione all’iprite causava una momentanea cecità; un’alta concentrazione del gas provocava la morte in pochi minuti; dosi più basse causavano piaghe e lesioni di difficile guarigione.
Sargent era il più affermato pittore anglosassone quando nel 1918 il governo britannico si rivolse a lui per chiedergli un’epica tela corale di tema bellico.

L’artista si recò allora nelle zone di guerra - ad Arras ed a Ypres - dove osservò attentamente la vita dei militari per trarre ispirazione. Fu impressionato dalla visione di un campo pieno di soldati inglesi reduci da un attacco con gas mostarda e decise di farne il soggetto del suo quadro.
Gassed raffigura un gruppo di soldati, accecati dall’iprite, che si dirigono a un ospedale di campo aiutati da un medico; sulla destra un’altra fila di militari privi di vista fa altrettanto; stesi a terra ci sono innumerevoli compagni agonizzanti.

La scena si svolge al tramonto; in basso a destra si vede sorgere la luna. L’impatto emotivo del dipinto è accentuato dalle sue grandi dimensioni e dal punto di osservazione ribassato che dà alla fila di militari la solennità di una processione religiosa.
La luce dorata del tramonto crea un’atmosfera eroica e suggerisce un parallelo con il probabile tramonto delle vite dei soldati feriti più gravemente.
La drammaticità del momento è mitigata dalla partita di calcio sullo sfondo; come si può vedere, si tratta di un match in piena regola con squadre munite di tutto il necessario: magliette, pantaloncini e calzettoni.

Sargent dipinse questa relazione tra football e guerra - The Greater Game - in Gassed. Il quadro celebrava i militari britannici ed indirettamente, anche il calcio; e lo faceva in modo ufficiale, giacché era una commissione del governo britannico.