A Deadly Weapon, A Solemn Memorial

Published November 9, 2012

The Wall Street Journal

John Singer Sargent, "Gassed," 1919
John Singer Sargent, “Gassed,” 1919

They call it the “iron harvest.” Every year French farmers uncover hundreds of rusting shells in the fields over which the bloody battles of World War I raged. While the cannons fell silent 94 years ago Sunday, these munitions still sometimes kill those who unearth them.

Of particular peril are the shells containing poison gas, which inflicted an agonizing death or a lifetime of pain. Widely employed during World War I, it was first released near Ypres in 1915, sowing panic among French and Algerian troops whose line crumbled as they fled from the deadly, greenish clouds of chlorine gas creeping toward them.

Discharged from cylinders or fired by artillery shells, three varieties of gas–chlorine, phosgene and mustard–were widely used as offensive weapons. Gas was a highly efficient killer; heavier than air, it seeped into the trenches housing thousands of tightly packed troops.

During the first gas attacks, soldiers were ill trained or equipped to protect themselves. But even after the development of effective gas masks, the shock and fear produced by the chemicals were physically and emotionally devastating.

Of these toxins, mustard gas was the most dreadful. It attacked not only the lungs but the entire body, causing blindness and massive blistering. It penetrated soil, food and uniforms, and was so potent that it poisoned anyone who tried to help its victims. It turned hair and skin yellow, and when bandages were removed they took the flesh with them. It clung to the trenches and equipment, killing vegetation in its noxious mustard-smelling wake and rendering whatever it touched toxic for months.

This gas inspired one of the most remarkable, and unduly neglected, paintings of the war: John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed,” now in London’s Imperial War Museum.

In 1918, Sargent received a letter from Prime Minister David Lloyd George urging him to do “a work of great and lasting service to the nation” by executing a large painting in which “British and American troops are engaged in unison.” It was commissioned for a Memorial Gallery in London, which was never built.

Sargent (1856-1925) was an odd choice. Born in Florence to expatriate American parents, he was a cosmopolitan bon vivant who lived mainly abroad–although he valued his American citizenship enough to refuse a knighthood. A celebrated painter of the beau monde, his portraits were eagerly sought by the social and political glitterati of Europe and the U.S. His flattering touch depicts American presidents, British prime ministers and the hereditary and self-made aristocracy of the Gilded Age with flawless ease and expresses the boundless optimism soon to be swept away by the war.

The sexagenarian Sargent accepted the commission and, after much fussing with his kit, arrived in France in early July 1918 for a three-month stay. A celebrity guest, he was welcomed in style by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. An innocent about all things military, Sargent surprised his hosts by asking if there was fighting on Sundays. Oblivious to danger, he made no attempt to camouflage the large white umbrella shielding his easel from the sun, a tempting target for German guns.

Nonetheless, Sargent knew he had an important commission to fulfill. But because it was so different from his previous work he was, understandably, perplexed by what he was supposed to do. He visited the front in search of subjects, but complained that “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.”

This scene is described in a letter by the physician-artist Henry Tonks, who was traveling with Sargent. Tonks writes that he and Sargent joined a unit of the Guards Division near Arras advancing toward the front during the Allies’ final drive toward victory over Germany.

In the late afternoon of Aug. 21, the two artists saw a group of gassed soldiers arriving at a medical dressing station at Le Bac-du-Sud behind the front lines. Tonks says that “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.”

Sargent had at long last found his subject, although not the one of American and British cooperation he had originally been commissioned to paint.

Receiving permission for the change of subject, he began work in his London studio, employing the many drawings he made in France to compose a gigantic (7½ feet by 20 feet) oil painting, which when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919 was praised by Winston Churchill for its “brilliant genius and painful significance” and attacked by Virginia Woolf for its patriotism.

Sargent used the immense width of the canvas to re-create in nearly life-size what he saw at Le Bac-du-Sud. The setting sun is low in the sky as a line of gassed soldiers, their sightless eyes covered by strips of cloth, stumbles toward the dressing station, a tent whose guy ropes are seen at the far right. Each soldier grasps the shoulder of the man in front of him, and most still hold their Enfield rifles and carry their now useless gas masks in canvas bags. More wounded men lie on either side of the duckboard road the blinded men walk.

But even in this awful image, which evokes but almost parodies the form of a military parade, Sargent’s brilliance as a composer of form is everywhere evident. The sophisticated cadence, interval and variation of the hands, legs and torsos create a monumental frieze evocative of the processions of the Parthenon sculptures or the Ara Pacis, works that Sargent knew well. Perhaps he was also familiar with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Blind Leading the Blind.”

In the background of Sargent’s painting, another line of gassed soldiers lurches diagonally toward the dressing station. The stricken but still upright figures are a strong compositional contrast to the jumble of writhing men awaiting treatment in the dressing station.

But what Sargent records in “Gassed” is paradoxical: Instead of depicting the dreadful toll of mustard gas that he saw with his own eyes on that day in 1918, he paints an elegantly composed scene gilded by the warm summer glow of the setting sun.

Unlike the nihilistic war artists a generation younger than he, Sargent was a Victorian who still saw nobility in war and in the sacrifice it required. His “Gassed” is, accordingly, a masterpiece that dwells between anguish and beauty, a haunting image of human suffering sanctified by his empathetic and elegant brush.

Mr. Cole, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is writing a book on the memorialization of World War I.

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