In 1918, Sargent undertook a commission by the British War Memorial Committee of the Ministry of Information to paint a large-scale war painting for a planned Hall of Remembrance. The subject matter specified for the commission was that of British and American troops co-orporating together and Sargent spent nearly four months, with fellow artist Henry Tonks, observing troops on the Western Front, first posted to the Guards Division at Bavincourt, south of Arras, and then the American Division at Ypres.
Although Sargent completed a number of works documenting the War, Graveyard in the Tyrol, 1914 (British Museum); Crashed Aeroplane, 1918 (Imperial War Museum); and A Street in Arras, 1918 (Imperial War Museum), the subject matter for the commission was initially problematic. On 11 September 1918 Sargent wrote to Evan Charteris, (1864-1940), his biographer and the original owner of the present work, 'How can there be anything flagrant enough for a picture when Mars and Venus are miles apart whether in camps or front trenches. And the farther forward one goes the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger the fewer and more hidden the men - the more dramatic the situation the more it becomes an empty landscape. 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' (E. Charteris, John Sargent, New York, 1927, p. 214).
After discussions with the Memorial Committee the scene depicted in the present work was agreed on, as it was the one Sargent was prepared to paint on the large scale required to fit into the architectural plans of the Hall of Rememberance. He had witnessed the line of troops from the 99th Brigade of the 2nd Division and 8th Brigade of the 3rd Division, suffering from the effects of a gas attack, at Le Bac-du-Sud on the Arras Doullens Road. Tonks, who had been with Sargent commented, 'The Dressing Station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, led by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal ... 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' (R. Ormond, John Singer Sargent Paintings drawings watercolours, London, 1970, p. 258).
Richard Ormond writes, 'Gassed was painted in Sargent's Fulham studio over the winter of 1918-19, from sketches made on the spot and from detailed figure studies posed by professional models. Sargent reported good progress on the picture in a letter to Alfred Yockney of 11 February 1919, and announced its near completion in a second letter of 15 March (both Imperial War Museum Archive). The composition is dominated by a line of nine victims of the gas attack, assisted by two orderlies, who make their way along a boarded pathway between rows of resting soldiers, towards the dressing station on the right. Another line approaches in the middle distance. The light from the setting sun, coming from the right hand side, casts a golden glow over the whole scene and burnishes the faces, uniforms and equipment of the soldiers, while the moon can be seen rising in the background.
Photographs of mustard gas victims show them walking in line, each one resting his hand on the shoulder of the man in front. What Sargent does is to give them sublime and heroic stature. His soldiers silhouetted against the sky have the fixed forms and sharp outlines of a sculpted frieze the repetitive pattern of bodies and linked arms established a powerful rhythm across the picture space. And Sargent, master of form and interval, makes us feel the anguish of the scene as a movement of figures in slow time, of successive frames from a film as Richard Dorment once suggested, or a solemn fugue. They are grouped three by three, the stumbling figures of the front group supported by the orderly who turns to look back in an expressive movement of contrapposto. The next group is led by a young unhelmeted soldier whose blond hair and bandage are deliberately highlighted. Then comes another interval, with the second orderly temporarily obstructed by one of the men on the ground, turning his back on us. A second prominent young man, firm-jawed and unhelmeted like the first, leads the final group, whose rifles reinforce the linkage of arms and bodies.
Sargent had been attracted to the processional form from the beginning of his career, deploying it in the early Oyster Gatherers of Cancale, 1878 (The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) in Cashmere (c. 1908, private collection, U.S.A.), painted thirty years later, and in The Danaides, on of the murals in his cycle at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was drawing on a form of imagery that goes back to the Renaissance, and before that to antiquity. The linked and trance-like figures in Sargent's picture can be compared to representations of the dance of death, or the blind leading the blind (as in Brueghel's well-known version). There are comparisons closer to his own time, in the great classical processions by the high Victorians, for example Lord Leighton's Daphnephoria (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) to which his own picture forms a modern sequel. Another source first suggested by Richard Dorment and independently identified by John Thomas (see his article in Imperial War Museum Review, no. 9, 1994) is Rodin's Burghers of Calais.
Sargent deliberately draws on the religious associations of the processional form to give his painting spiritual weight and meaning. The dressing station, lying off canvas to the right, can be read as a place of salvation as well as a place of healing. David Fraser Jenkins and Elaine Kilmurray have pointed out the parallel between the stretched guy ropes of the tent and those which raise the cross in Tintoretto's great crucifixion scene in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice and between the wide format of both works. The guy ropes are the harbingers of hope or death emanating from a mysterious and unseen source. By contrast, the resting bodies in the foreground have no such resolution to look forward to. They form the predella of the picture, a tightly interlocked frieze of jangled bodies, like the damned in a last judgement, all elbows and knees, seen in foreshortened perspective right up against the front of the picture space. Pain and weariness of spirit is the message here' (E. Kilmurray and R. Ormond, John Singer Sargent, London, 1998, pp. 264-66).
The Hall of Rememberance was never built and the final painting, Gassed, 1919, became part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum, London (fig. 1). The present work is the only known oil version relating to the larger canvas, and Richard Ormond thinks that it might have been painted as a presentation sketch for Evan Chateris. There are preliminary sketches for the larger canvas but these were primarily charcoal studies now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. These works do show preparation for the final canvas and are workings-out of parts of the composition, for example, studies of hands, bandaged heads, putteed legs, helmets and rifles.
Compositionally, the present work is similar to Gassed. Not all of the figures which lie in the foreground of the larger canvas, however, are present, nor are soldiers playing football in the distance. The differing scales of these two oils is also interesting as initially Sargent was reluctant to work on such a large scale, writing to Alfred Yockney (secretary of the Memorial Committee) on 4 October 1918 that it would produce, 'an awfully long strip of a picture ... I think the picture would be infinitely better and much less impossible to execute if it were half the size' (Imperial War Museum Archive).
Atypical of his oeuvre, yet important to our understanding of Gassed, the present oil is a haunting image that evidences Sargent's ability to blend realism and idealism in his work.
We are very grateful to Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry. This work will be included in the forthcoming John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonné by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, in collaboration with Warren Adelson and Elizabeth Oustinoff.