Gassed: creativity out of destruction

Gassed by John Singer Sergeant. © IWM ART 1460

John Singer Sargent’s painting Gassed is amongst the most well known in the Imperial War Museums’ art collection. Measuring over 2 x 6 metres (7 ft x 20 ft), this vast artwork depicts the horrific effects of mustard gas on the body, which often caused severe burns and blindness. From 27 July 2018 to 24 February 2019 Gassed will be on display in the Lest We Forget? Exhibition at IWM North, Manchester, and in this blog post we explore the story behind this iconic image.


  • Early works

John Singer Sargent was born Florence, Italy in 1856, and spent much of his youth travelling and painting in Europe and America. Known largely as a portrait and landscape artist before the war, his work was exhibited in galleries around the world.

Portrait photograph of John Singer Sargent. IWM HU 56114

Sargent was commissioned by the British Ministry of Information in 1918 to depict scenes of ‘Anglo-American co-operation’ on the Western Front. He joined other commissioned artists such as William Orpen and Muirhead Bone, whose works would perform a dual role: firstly, to promote the values of British liberal democracy; and secondly to commemorate the conflict for both current and future generations.


  • To the Western Front

In July 1918, 62-year-old Sargent travelled to France with fellow artist Henry Tonks. He made sketches of life at the front with British and American troops, which formed the basis for ten paintings that he completed back in Britain. He reflected on the challenges that he faced as an artist, trying to capture the human experiences of the war:


“The further forward one goes, the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men – the more dramatic the situation, the more it becomes an empty landscape.”


However, a particular scene that he came across in August 1918 inspired him to produce a series of striking pencil drawings. His companion Henry Tonks later described what they saw:


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. The dressing station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. 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.


Gassed cases kept coming in, led along in parties of about six … their eyes were covered up by a piece of lint 

Study for ‘Gassed’, showing a medical
orderly helping wounded men.
© Art.IWM ART 16162 6

Mustard gas was an indiscriminate weapon causing widespread injury and burns, as well as affecting the eyes. In his sketches, Sargent draws the viewer into the tactile relationships between the blinded men, and the care shown by the medical orderlies. It was these drawings that Sargent presented to the War Memorials Committee, who clearly saw the potential for them to become an evocative painting.


  • Reception at home

Gassed was first put on public display in December 1919 in the Royal Academy, London. You can imagine the response of the public seeing it for the first time, many of whom would have experienced war or knew someone who had. Whilst some early reviewers said that the artwork was too painful to look at, others were inspired by the depiction of comradeship and humanity in times of conflict.

Sargent’s painting was also accepted for inclusion into a proposed Hall of Remembrance. This space, which unfortunately was never built, would be devoted to ‘fighting subjects, home subjects and the war at sea and in the air’. Nevertheless this group of paintings formed a key part of the newly-formed Imperial War Museums’ collection, under whose custodianship it has remained ever since.


John Singer Sargent’s grave in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. Image taken by Jack1956, licensed under Creative Commons

  • After the war

Sargent continued to paint after the war, and co-founded New York City’s Grand Central Art Galleries. He returned to England, where he died in 1925 and is buried in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

Sargent’s legacy to the art world is vast, completing more than 2,000 pieces in his lifetime. One hundred years after the first sketches were completed, Gassed continues to provoke an emotional response in those that encounter it.


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