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John Singer Sargent Visits the Front

By Theodore Rabb
Summer 1999 • MHQ Magazine

The newly invented weapons that brought such death and horror to the battle fields of World War I also inspired some remarkable works of art, including John Singer Sargents haunting Gassed.

There are many ways to win a war, and most of them require hard and relentless work–what Winston Churchill called “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” But the dream of a shortcut has always dazzled armies and their commanders. Military history is dotted with attempts at tactical masterstrokes designed to turn slow progress into sudden, convincing victory. Even more enticing, however, and equally uncertain in its effects, has been the hope for a technological breakthrough that could give one side un­questioned superiority over its opponents. The quest for a decisive invention is as old as the experiments with tactics. Whether it was Archimedes’ use of shields as mirrors to focus sunlight and burn enemy ships, or the development of the stir­rup to stabilize horsemen in battle, or the ingenuity lavished on weapons to hurl pro­jectiles– from the crossbow through the multifarious applications of gunpowder­ generals looking for an extra edge have been among history’s most inventive and persistent experimenters. And whenever a new lethal device proved effective, it was quickly imitated, countered, refined, and ultimately made standard equipment until the next invention appeared. In recent times, improvements in technology have accelerated this process, but, with the ex­ception of the atomic bomb, the impact of the inventor and the engineer on warfare has never been as spectacular as it was dur­ing World War I.

Three innovations of warfare in particu­lar made the soldier’s experience between 1914 and 1918 radically different from what it had been in previous conflicts. First was the airplane, coming from the Wright brothers’ drawing board a little more than a decade before the start of the war. It rarely takes the military long to find a way to apply a technological break through, and in this case they had been interested in aerial weaponry for some time. During a revolt against the Austrian Empire in 1849, for in stance, Venice was assaulted by an unmanned balloon carrying incendiary de­vices. Inevitably, airplanes came to serve as weapons. By the end of World War I some could carry more than a ton of bombs. And, thanks to a remarkable feat of engineer­ing–the creation of the synchronizing gear that permitted the firing of a machine gun through a whirling propeller-planes were able not only to shoot one another down more easily but also to strafe troops on the ground.

The second innovation was the tank, an armored vehicle conceived by an English­man, Ernest Swinton, as a result of the marriage of two inventions: the internal combustion engine and the caterpillar-type tractor. Their combination created the first piece of weaponry that could resist machine­ gun fire amid the rigors of trench warfare, and it was soon a common sight in France. In late 1917 the English launched the first massive tank assault–nearly four hundred smashed through enemy lines–in the Battle of Cambrai, and its initial success transformed ground combat.

But it was the third of the technological advances that caused the most profound horror and fear: poison gas. The idea of such weaponry was not new–the ancient Greeks had used sulphur fumes to disperse en­emies–but the progress of chemistry had made the danger more far-reaching, and in the nineteenth century adversaries had agreed not to use it. Those agreements fell apart, however, when the Germans, frustrated by the stalemate, launched a huge greenish-yellow cloud, filled with chlorine, toward Canadian trenches near Ypres in April 1915. The attack opened a four-mile gap in the lines, but by the next day the Al­lies had identified the gas and begun to take countermeasures. Ever more lethal vari­eties, notably mustard gas, were produced during the next three years by both sides, but for all the menace these chemicals posed, their delivery (mainly by wind, shell, and bomb) was too difficult for them to have a decisive effect on the battlefield.

No artist could have seemed more un­likely to produce the most haunting image of this war than the American painter John Singer Sargent. Born in 1856 in Florence, Italy, the son of a surgeon who had given up his Philadelphia practice to travel in Europe Sargent had a pampered but peripatetic childhood. His family was nearly always on the move, and he spent his first 18 years traveling among the principal Euro­pean cities and resorts. Cosmopolitan and fluent in four languages, Sargent began drawing at a young age, encouraged by his mother, who herself had taken up water­ colors. His talent was obvious, and in 1874 he began the serious study of art in Paris. By the 1880s he was a well-known figure in Parisian artistic and literary circles, ex­hibiting at the Salon and receiving com­ missions from the socially prominent.

In his 20s and 30s, Sargent vis­ited America a number of times, and it was there that he began to win wide renown as a portrait painter, a reputation that only grew when he settled in England in the 1890s. In London he became a fixture in high society, was elected to the Royal Academy, and cultivated friendships that ranged from aristocratic families to the novelist Henry James and the composer Percy Grainger. It was during these years that Sargent created his trademark work­ dreamy landscapes, beautifully observed city scenes, and, above all, portraits of ele­gant, ethereal females, adorable children, and keen-eyed, often languid men. In his early 50s, though, he decided to cut back on the portrait commissions and the social whirl and to devote himself primarily to larger-scale works and to depictions of the places he visited during his many travels, especially his beloved Italy.

This was the figure from the haut monde, the master of grace and delicacy, whom the British government implausibly asked, in the spring of 1918, to travel to the front lines to record his impressions of a ghastly war. The Memorials Committee of the Min­istry of Information offered the commission at a nominal fee, and the prime minister, David Lloyd George, personally wrote to Sargent to persuade him to accept. He agreed, left in July with his fellow artist and friend Henry Tonks, and remained in France for a few months, sketching and working extensively in the medium his mother had loved, watercolor.

The encounter with the war inspired a depth of feeling in Sargent for which there was little precedent in his earlier work. It is notable, for example, that the qualities associated with his art–soft colors and attention to architectural detail–are over­ whelmed in Street in Arras by his com­mentary on the effects of combat. Sargent was housed for a while in Arras, and this almost documentary record of a time and place contrasts the wreckage on the left with the former elegance of a fine house and the boredom of the troops who take what rest they can from the fighting. The destruction of beauty has become a matter of complete indifference to the soldiers who are its cause.

Sargent was also aware of the new weaponry, and two of his watercolors sug­gest, at least implicitly, its ultimate futility. A Wrecked Tank shows little evidence of a once formidable machine. Abandoned in the countryside are a few twisted pieces of metal, relics of an explosion, and now no more than a rusting testimony to the de­structiveness reflected in the small row of crosses, suggesting grave markers, near the pond behind the tank.

And in Crashed Aeroplane the message is hard to miss. The wreckage is in the back ground, ironically surveyed by soldiers on foot and on a horse, the one-time exemplar of speed and mobility. But in the foreground the life of the farmer goes on, un­affected by the mayhem in the adjacent field. The scene recalls the famous canvas by Pieter Bruegel, The Fall of Icarus, which hung in the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and in which, in the words of W.H. Auden, “everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/But for him it was not an important failure.” For Sargent, too, life had to tri­umph over death.

Yet it was the third of the new weapons that stirred Sargent to create his masterpiece. He did not complain when he came under fire or shared the harsh conditions of the front, but he did speak of “a harrow­ing sight, a field full of gassed and blind­ folded men.” He made sketches of what he saw, and when he came back to London, he agreed with the Memorials Committee that the major work from his commission would be an enormous canvas–it turned out to be 20 feet long and nine feet high-titled Gassed.

The painting evokes the misery and an­guish of World War I, and it does so–as was so often the case with this highly cultivated artist–by drawing on historic imagery. For a start, Gassed echoes the military pro­cessions so familiar in ancient and Renaissance art. But it also resonates with the medieval theme of the dance of death and quite specifically with another poignant painting by Bruegel, The Blind leading the Blind. Henry Tonks described the scene they had encountered on the Arras road in Au­gust 1918: “The Dressing Station…consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, led by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal.” This was the scene, caused by a surprise mustard-gas attack, that Sargent decided to commemorate.

Under a sky whose color is reminiscent of the gas, a line of blindfolded soldiers staggers toward the tent on the right. Around them lie other victims, and a sec­ond group approaches. In the sky, above a pale sun that is also evocative of Bruegel, tiny planes remain engaged in combat, while in the distance some soldiers who es­caped the attack relax in a game of soccer, ignoring the agony that surrounds them. Yet it is the central tableau of nine sight­ less men, still carrying their gear and their guns, that rivets our attention. They are being helped along by two orderlies, one of whom warns of a small step, and in re­sponse the third soldier, in a gesture that marks this as a moment frozen in time, lifts his foot to exaggerated height to avoid tripping. The monumental scale of the procession gives it a heroic cast, and there seems little doubt that the artist is both documenting the torment caused by a gruesome form of warfare and creating a deeply moving tribute to the men who fought on amidst the suffering. The paint­ ing transforms one’s appreciation of Sar­gent; no other work of art conveys more powerfully both the fury and the fortitude of World War I. MHQ

THEODORE K. RABB is a professor of history at Princeton University.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1999 issue (Vol. 11, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: John Singer Sargent Visits the Front

 

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