I took a couple of excited schoolboys to the Imperial War Museum in London a few weeks ago. The art gallery inside the museum (which was my reason for going there) houses one of John Singer Sargent’s masterpieces, “Gassed”. This very large canvas (231cm x 611cm )was to become part of a Hall of Remembrance to those who fought in the Great War. The hall was never built but Sargent’s painting remains. Sargent was commissioned as a war artist and sketched a number of lively watercolours of off-duty tommies but this painting is his most poignant.
A group of guardsmen, blinded by poison gas, are being led to a dressing station by medical orderlies. Other similarly afflicted soldiers are sitting or lying around them as the sun sets and the moon rises just above the horizon. The evening light gives a golden glow to the the whole picture, burnishing the khaki of the uniforms and the blond hair of the young soldiers. The central theme is the group of men but the eye takes in the figures at their feet and, in the background, the camp and the small group playing football in brightly coloured jerseys. The composition is masterly.
The picture appears to have been painted with no more than five or six colours: black, white, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, vermilion and some ultramarine, and has great unity of colour. The brushwork is broad (I imagine Sargent used very few brushes smaller than an inch-wide hog hair filbert), and sketchy (some of the brush strokes on the sky stand out even five or six metres away). Next to the painting are some of the charcoal sketches Sargent used as a basis for the figures. A few of the sketched figures appear twice in slightly altered poses in the final oil and here and there you can see from the underpainting where Sargent had changed his mind about the position or pose of a figure or object in the scene. “Gassed” is a fund of information for the art student as well as being what most dedicated artists would love to produce – a very moving and beautiful painting. Even my schoolboys appreciated it.