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Gassed

The aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918 as witnessed by the artist, John Singer-Sargent.

Mustard gas was an indiscriminate weapon causing widespread injury and burns, as well as affecting the eyes. It offered the chance of making significant military advances but in practice, defences were usually prepared, soldiers replaceable and the land could be contaminated for lengthy periods.

The painting gives clues about the management of the victims, their lack of protective clothing, the impact and extent of the attack as well as its routine nature – the football match goes on regardless. The canvas is lightly painted with great skill. Sargent draws the viewer into the tactile relationships between the blinded men. There is a suggestion of redemption as the men are led off to the medical tents, but the overall impression is of loss and suffering, emphasised by the expressions of the men standing in line. In sharp contrast to the victims, the football players are physically and visually co-ordinated and have full kit.

Sargent travelled to France with artist, Henry Tonks in July 1918. Tonks describes the context for this work in a letter to Alfred Yockney on 19 March 1920:

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, lead 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.
 

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Detail of Gassed by John Singer Sargent
Study for Gassed by John Singer Sargent
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Listen to the interviews:
Two veterans talk about the effects of gas.
 
Remedy for Poison gas.