While commemorations of war throughout history have often focused on gallantry and heroism, artists struggled with the task of memorializing World War I. The destruction of human life during the war, multiplied by the use of such new weapons as poison gas, flamethrowers, and tanks, stunned and appalled soldiers and civilians alike. A year after the war ended, Britain’s War Memorials Committee commissioned John Singer Sargent, one of the most famous artists of the day, to create a large-scale painting as a memorial to the nation’s fallen soldiers. Well known for his portraits and landscapes, Sargent had never taken on a project as momentous as this one, and he found it difficult and challenging. Eventually, he produced a painting titled Gassed.

John Singer Sargent painted Gassed in 1919, depicting the effects of chemical weapons used by Germans against the British in the Battle of Arras on August 21, 1918. See full-sized image for analysis.

 

Connection Questions

  1. Analyze the painting using the following process:
    • First, look closely, observing shapes, colors, and the positions of people and objects.
    • Second, write down what you observe without making any interpretation about what the image is trying to say.
    • Third, list questions this image raises for you that you would need to have answered before you can interpret its meaning. Share and discuss your questions with another person, and try to find some answers.
    • Finally, given the historical context you have learned, describe what you think the creator of this image is trying to say. Who is the intended audience, and what does the image’s creator want the audience to think and feel?
  2. What vision of war does this painting portray? Does it commemorate destruction or heroism?
  3. How do you think the members of Britain’s War Memorials Committee might have responded to Sargent’s painting? What is at stake when governments or individuals choose how to commemorate a war?

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