John Singer Sargent: combat artist in World War I

August 8, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

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.


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