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Sunday 11th November 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice – the treaty ending the carnage and horror of the First World War. Inevitably Gassed – John Singer Sargent’s epic, moving painting – will be shown in documentaries and reproduced in print as an icon of this suffering, as it has been since its completion in 1919. This, however, is how we view it today, not as it was viewed when first unveiled.

Gassed

Gassed 1919

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

An essay on a display at the Royal Academy was published in the British magazine The Athenaeum on 22nd August 1919:

'A large picture by Mr Sargent called ‘Gassed’ at last pricked some nerve of protest, or perhaps of humanity. In order to emphasise his point that the soldiers wearing bandages round their eyes cannot see, and therefore claim our compassion, he makes one of them raise his leg to the level of his elbow... This little piece of over-emphasis was the final scratch of the surgeon’s knife which is said to hurt more than the whole operation... One fled downstairs, out of doors, round the motor-cars, beneath the disdain of the horse and its rider, and so out into the comparative sobriety of Piccadilly.'

The fleeing writer was Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) c.1912

Vanessa Bell (1879–1961)

In May 1919 The Athenaeum actually accused Gassed of giving a simplified depiction of the war:

'This picture is a descriptive work; it recounts the result of a gas attack in very much the language that an English schoolboy of the self-conscious age might use.

'"Yes, y' know, lot o' fellows stumbin' along, blinded, don't y' see, hangin' on to each other's shoulders. Lot of other chaps lying about too ill to shift for 'emselves." The schoolboy might pause here for a moment, and then with a brilliant smile of inspiration. "Funny thing, y' know, football goin' on in next field. Bit tragic what?"... I have no doubt that this scene was one of the beastliest of the war, a combination of the tragic and the unexpected, that sense of the cowardly advantage which adds the torture of a fury not to be satisfied to the physical agony. Both mental and physical aspects at this scene can scarcely have been more poignant, and of this Mr Sargent has made a picture, a reproduction of which many a young lady will hang up in her boudoir, and in sentimental moments will regard with that taint glitter of a summoned fear and murmur. "Poor fellows."'

... some 124,702 British soldiers were victims of gas and suffered mustard gas blisters, burns or temporary blindness. 2,308 of them died.

This views Gassed as a painting made to be reproduced and displayed on a wall as a decoration, one designed to evoke sympathy and perhaps even nostalgia. It can give comfort to those who lost loved ones in the war.

On 14th December 1919 The Observer ran a piece by their art critic P. G. Konody on the opening of the exhibition of war paintings commissioned and collected by the Ministry of Information and the Imperial War Museum. Sargent’s Gassed is one picture he claims fails:

'It remains, with all its painter-like qualities, a by no means altogether satisfactory compromise between decoration and pictorial realism. Mr Sargent has spent months at the front to collect the material for his picture. He is so keen an observer, as a rule, that it would be foolhardy to accuse him of inaccuracy. Yet, remembering the grotesque nightmare horror of the choking and vomiting Zouaves in Mr Roberts’ ‘Gas Attack’ painting for the Canadians, I cannot help feeling that this calm procession of gas-blinded men, carrying their trench coats, rifles and other paraphernalia as though they were returning from a pic-nic, is singularly unconvincing. Surely, in the agony of the struggle for breath, the first instinctive action is to throw off every encumbrance.'

It is true that if we examine The First German Gas Attack at Ypres by William Roberts – now in the collection of Canada's National Gallery – we see a radically different style to Sargent’s. Roberts' painting shows men scrambling for their lives. Figures collide into each other and towards the viewer. The viewer looks on as a helpless observer of terror and chaos – a voyeur of death.

Self-Portrait Wearing a Cap

Self-Portrait Wearing a Cap 1931

William Patrick Roberts (1895–1980)

Roberts served as a gunner in the army during the war. Through Konody's support he received a commission from the Canadian War Memorials Fund, established by Lord Beaverbrook in November 1916. The First German Gas Attack at Ypres was painted in Roberts’ studio in Chelsea in the summer of 1918. Although the Canadians gave strict instructions that their commission should be descriptive, there are certainly elements of abstraction present.

What Roberts’ work shows – and Sargent’s does not – is the terror of being attacked by the invisible unstoppable enemy of gas. As William Moore records in Gas Attack: Chemical Warfare 1915–1918 some 124,702 British soldiers were victims of gas and suffered mustard gas blisters, burns or temporary blindness. 2,308 of them died. Overall on all sides, 1,250,000 men were casualties of gas. James Shaw was one of the men who were gassed. In an article in St Dunstan's Review published in November 1980 Shaw recalled his walk in a line to a casualty clearing station as his eyesight rapidly faded:

'With no conveyances to the dressing station we set off in small groups. First we had just sufficient strength to walk straight, and then severe sickness came on so that most of us nearly turned our stomachs out as we began to stumble along the road. My own sight had practically gone as I had walked 200 yards along the road and it was the most awful experience imaginable to feel one’s sight fading quickly, coupled with a half-dead feeling that almost reduced me to a crumpled heap in the roadway. How I got to the dressing station I cannot now very well explain, but I do remember that a number of us went arm in arm stumbling about the roadway, finding the dressing station more out of sense of direction than by actually seeing the place.'

This is a radically different experience to that painted by Sargent.

The continuing impact of the work into the twenty-first century is due to its mass exposure in the media but also to the skill of the artist, the delicacy of Sargent’s brush.

Of course, Sargent shows the aftermath of an attack, away from the front lines and it would be unjust to say that the reviews for Gassed were uniformly poor. The Manchester Guardian of 3rd May 1919 stated that the exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1919 was 'the most interesting since the war began.' The reason it succeeded, they thought, was mainly due to John Singer Sargent 'who carries so much of the show on his own shoulders.' In this review the understatement so criticised elsewhere is praised as an example of Sargent showing a 'new humbleness' in his style.

Gassed was recognised as symbolic early in its history. In 1919 during a banquet at the Royal Academy, the Academy's President Sir Aston Webb toasted the 'Imperial Forces' and pointed to Gassed saying it showed 'how the bravery of our men had persisted in spite of the most devilish inventions.'

The Cloth Hall, Ypres

The Cloth Hall, Ypres 1918

Walter Westley Russell (1867–1949)

Gassed was painted by Sargent as a symbolisation of war, and its subdued nature is deliberate. It is the very 'delicacy' of Gassed that allows for frequent reproduction. The vomiting soldier in the foreground of Sargent's painting turns away from us to preserve his own dignity. It is in details like this that the artist's restraint can be seen. The continuing impact of the work into the twenty-first century is due to its mass exposure in the media but also to the skill of the artist, the delicacy of Sargent’s brush. This has allowed Gassed to become one of the iconic images of the First World War.

Gary Haines, archivist and researcher