A Famous World War I Painting

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant

In World War I many artists and writers were commissioned to produce memorial art to commemorate the glory, gallantry, sacrifice, and suffering of soldiers in the monumental struggle that cost the lives of so many and changed the world. One of the most remarkable is Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant. Though best known for his portraits, Sergeant also made several war painting, a vastly different subject.

At the age of 62, he was sent to the battlefield to observe first hand and paint a work for public display. He did several of smaller size. His study for this piece—his work, like that of so many artists, refers to several masterpieces. The picture was originally intended for display in a planned Hall of Remembrance. However, the hall was never built. Instead the picture was taken by the Imperial War Museum. Because of its massive size—7 ½ feet high and 20 feet long—the painting was not suited to any of the display areas in the museum. Instead, the work was placed in a room far from the normal flow of visitor viewing, hard to find.

I was fortunate in 2015 to visit the museum with my friends, Nick and Antony Bird, whose battlefield tour company took me and Sarah to important battlefield sites in Belgium and France in 2014. The brothers took me to see the painting. It is in a room where it is the only object. The room is narrow, so the view is rather close to the paining itself. I suspect that, seen from a greater distance, it would have a slightly different impact. In any case, it is stunning, one of the most impressive pieces of World War I art I wish that more people, especially those who visit the museum anyway, would get to see Gassed.

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