John Singer Sargent, combat artist
In 1918, John Singer Sargent, 62, was a world-renowned artist, a man famous for his vision, technique, and talent. He could easily have turned down the request from the British government that he go to France and to produce a piece of artwork that would commemorate the alliance between Britain and America that would eventually end The Great War, now known as World War I.
But Sargent did not turn it down. He went to war.
Sargent had already been deeply affected by the war. In March 1918, a favorite niece had been killed in France from German shelling while working as a nurse. Her husband had died on the front a few months before that.
Sargent’s very public response to the war incorporated associations of his personal grief and loss. Months earlier, his beloved niece (and frequent model) Rose-Marie Ormond had been killed in the bombing of the church of Saint-Gervais in Paris on Good Friday. Only 24 years old at the time of her death, Rose-Marie had worked as a nurse treating blinded soldiers after her husband, Robert, died fighting for France in October 1914. Sargent likely associated the wounded soldiers in Gassed with her role in the war effort. Source: John Singer Sargent and World War I: Public Art and Personal Loss | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sargent spent several months at the front and found it deeply unsettling and unsatisfying as an artist. His commission was to paint a mural for a planned Imperial War Museum — a painting that would show the cooperation of the British and American forces in 1918. Sargent tried to fulfill that mission, but there was little that he saw that inspired him.
The landscapes were bleak, and as he got closer to the front — and the real drama of the war — the fewer people he saw. Sargent produced a number of oils and watercolors of merit — and he executed many sketches — but he finally abandoned the idea of depicting American and British troops together in some sort of heroic pose.
What Sargent decided to show instead was the universal suffering that the war had caused. The subject presented itself in the form of victims of a gas attack toward the end of his stay in France. Gas had been used as a weapon throughout the war, and its effects were well known to the public. Toward the end of his stay at the front, Sargent visited a medic station where gas victims were gathering. There he saw soldier being led in — unusually in groups of six — by an ordering; each soldier had a had on the soldier in front of him to stay with the group.
The scene impressed Sargent, and he did a number of drawings and studies on the spot and later that day.
The result was Gassed, a large, classical frieze composition showing a line of blindfolded soldiers as they make their way through the chaos of wounded and dying soldiers. The landscape is bleak, without many features.
The painting now hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London, the work of the Great War’s most famous combat artist.
A definition of retirement
Hal M., a friend of longstanding, a newsletter reader, and an all-around good guy, passed along this definition of retirement in an email exchange we had this week:
Retirement is when every evening is Friday night, and every day is Saturday.
Hal and I go all the way back to our high school days at Maplewood High School in the early 1960s. Hal played the trombone in Maplewood’s marching band, and I played the flute. Hal was a year ahead of me (Class of ’65), but his sister Susan was in my class (Class of ’66). Both Hal and Susan were good friends and two of the people who made high school so enjoyable. I never think of either of them without smiling.
Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone
Helen P.: I read the Moonstone as a required summer reading book for freshman year. That was back in the mid-60’s. To this day anytime a moonstone is mentioned, whether advertising jewelry or as adornments in a book, it gains my attention.
The remainder of the email sent by Jim. S. in reaction to last week’s item on the decline in the number of jury trials.
. . .
One evening, a friend of mine was having tremendous difficulty going to sleep and he had to work the next day. He was still awake into the early hours of the morning. He felt he had to take something so he could sleep. He made the mistake, and admits it was a mistake, of taking two Ambiens rather than one. He did not think one would get him to sleep.
When his alarm sounded, he got up, dressed, had breakfast and left for work. He was so out of it he didn’t realize the complete fog he was in. He ran into a car. He tried to clear his head, but he was very woozy. He got out of his car and was standing unsteadily. A police officer came, took his arm and pulled on him. He didn’t know what was happening so he shook the hand off his arm. He was much bigger than the officer. The officer fell.
They took him to jail. He says he can’t remember getting up, getting ready and driving his car.
He was charged with trying to throw a police officer into traffic.
At his first trial, ten or twelve of us showed up in his defense, without him asking us. Although most of us did not know one another, we all had similar stories of how this man had a huge heart and would go out of his way and was willing to be inconvenienced to help another person. One story I related was about an evening he and I were playing a card game. A friend called who was having difficulty with his AC. We stopped the game and I went with him and watched him repair the AC. No charge of course. The others had similar stories of his selflessness.
He was sentenced to some jail time, which he served. Then he went to his probation trial. That judge was very pro-police. He found out before he went to court that he didn’t have a chance of a reduced probation, which, in my opinion, the extenuating circumstances should have provided. He spent thousands and thousands of dollars in his defense, to no avail.
This is a little frightening. If I were to get into trouble, I do not have thousands of dollars to defend myself. The state has much more money and power to prosecute me.
I believe we have a good system of justice but the playing field in court needs to be leveled somehow, on both sides. It should not matter whether the defendant is a billionaire who can outspend the state or a pauper that the state can stomp on.
I’ve thought about this and I can only think of one solution. That is for the state to provide attorneys for both sides, as well as money for specialists to testify. Of course, there are problems with this solution. I know the billionaires would still hire their own attorneys to assist the defense lawyers the state provides. Also, the state might still side with the prosecution in providing a less qualified lawyer to the pauper.
Beyond this solution, I am out of ideas. The thought of being charged with something I didn’t do scares me. I don’t dwell on it because I am a very boring person and don’t foresee myself getting into trouble. However, if I did, there is no way for me to mount a defense. Guess I better stay out of trouble.
Anyway, these are my thoughts. Hmmm.
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