Gassed by John Singer Sargent

Gassed by John Singer Sargent (1918)

My Daily Art Display painting for today follows the theme of yesterday’s offering.  Once again I am featuring a painting which highlights the savagery of war.  This is another realistic depiction of the horrors of war which are often badly received by people who prefer to just see depictions of glorious victories, heroic acts and the happy return of our fighting men.  Sadly these kinds of pictures give one a false impression of the reality of war and it is sad to think that some of us want to close our eyes to what a war really is about and the terrifying effect it has on those who have to fight for somebody’s cause.   My painting today is entitled Gassed and is by the American artist John Singer Sargent which depicts the horrors of the trench fighting in the First World War.  It is a massive painting measuring 231cms high and 611 cms wide (91 inches x 240 inches) and can be seen in the Imperial War Museum in London.

John Singer Sargent was an American painter.  His parents were Americans but he was actually born in Florence where the family had moved to as an aid to his mother’s health.   The family travelled extensively throughout Europe.   Sargent loved his country yet he spent most of his life in Europe.   He became one of the most celebrated portraitists of his time but at the very height of his fame as a portrait painter he decided to devote full time to landscape painting, water colours and public art.

In the early days he was schooled as a French artist, and was greatly influenced by the Impressionist movement, the Spanish master Velazquez, the Dutch master Frans Hals, and his art tutor, the French painter, Carolus-Duran.   He was the toast of Paris until the scandal of his Madame X painting at the 1884 Salon.    Sargent painted the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, entitled Madame X, wearing a very risqué off the shoulder gown. It was also shockingly low-cut. Her mother asked him to withdraw the painting but he refused. Although, now it is acclaimed as his best work of art, it scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper. Sargent found the criticism unjustified and at the age of 28 he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life.  It was here that he reached the pinnacle of his fame.  It was thought that to have one’s portrait painted by Sargent was to have it painted by the best portraitist of the time.

In some ways it is disappointing to realise that as an artist he has sometimes been dismissed as he was never looked upon as being radical or a trend setter.  He was an artist who worked within known and accepted styles. He was a prolific painter, painting over 2000 watercolours. He was a very successful portraitist but labelled portraiture as “a pimp’s profession” and in 1907 he announced that he would paint “no more mugs” and with a few exceptions kept to his word. His new love was to paint landscape watercolours.

So today’s featured painting was very different to his normal works.  It is a scene Sargent witnessed in August 1918 at Le Bac du Sud on the road between the French towns of Arras and Doullens in the Somme area of Northern France.  We see a line of nine soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, being helped along a boarded path by two orderlies towards a medical station.  The medical post is out of sight to the right of the scene but we can make out the guy ropes which support the tent-like structure.   The line of men who struggle to make their way towards the tent are silhouetted against the golden sunset sky.  In the left background we can just make out some bivouacs and to the right we see another line of wounded men being led towards the medical facility.  The foreground of the painting is littered with the wounded lying at rest, many with their heads bandaged.

The setting of the painting reminds me of the war poem dealing with the horrors of mustard gas in the World War 1 trenches.  It was entitled Dulce et Decorum Est and was composed by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum est, the title of the poem, are the first words of a Latin saying taken from an ode by Horace:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

“How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.”

 The full saying ends the poem:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

(It is sweet and right to die for your country).

In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.    Sadly as the young men sang joyfully as they marched towards the trenches in Northern France, little did they know of their impending fate.  Ironically, for many people of the time who supported Britain and France’s war against the Germans the words had specific relevance.  The first line of Owen’s poem is inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst.