Reaching a British dressing station southwest of the French city of Arras in the summer of 1918, famed American artist John Singer Sargent found his subject for an overdue painting. Sargent had been commissioned by the British Government to “contribute the central painting for a Hall of Remembrance for the World War.” He had procrastinated until he saw the dressing station.
The dressing station at the small village of Bailleulval was treating a number of British soldiers who had been blinded by a mustard gas attack.
The final product, Gassed, became a colossal work from the war, more than nine feet tall and more than 20 feet long. Hailed as “monumental” by the New York Times, a “masterpiece” by the Daily Mail, “magnificent” by the Telegraph and “extraordinary” by The Guardian, the painting is the featured element in the inaugural exhibition in the National WWI Museum and Memorial’s new Wylie Gallery, which opened to the public on Feb. 23, 2018.
The exhibition also includes original maps showing the location of the dressing station where Sargent witnessed the scene and reproductions of many of Sargent’s study drawings for the painting. Additionally, the Museum and Memorial partnered with the U.S. Army Chemical Corps Museum to feature historical and contemporary objects showing detection and protection from chemical warfare from World War I through the modern era.
The artist traveled to France with British surgeon turned artist, Henry Tonks, in July 1918. Tonks later wrote a letter in 1920 describing the scene which Sargent would paint in great detail:
“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. Gassed cases kept coming in, led 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.”
The panoramic scene not only shows the devastation to the young men in uniform, but in an ironic juxtaposition: a football (soccer) game is being played in the background, seemingly unaware of the damaged and blinded parade of Tommies (the nickname of British soldiers).
The painting from the collection of the Imperial War Museums in London, founded in 1917, has become not only a signature work from the war but also part of the imagery depicting the aftermath of the terror weapon of a terrible war: poison gas.
The use of poison gas was a desperate attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front. The Germans were the first to successfully use it in April 1915, but the British and French quickly followed suit. Poison gas endangered both defenders and attackers.
John Singer Sargent Gassed is open through June 3, 2018. For more information, visit theworldwar.org/gassed.