The scene is the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front during World War One, as witnessed by the artist. It is the end of the day. Two groups of eleven soldiers approach a dressing station - the station guy ropes can be seen leading off to the right.
Detail depicting soldier suffering from effect of mustard gas ©
Sargent here depicts soldiers who are displaying a heroic dignity, the sons of the salon society that he has spent his career flattering. Are they walking towards the Christ-like redemption that their bravery and sacrifice has earned? Or is the sun setting on the sort of society that allows its 'gilded' youth to be wasted in a cruel war? In this painting Sargent is holding together two ideas, developed as society was trying to make sense of the war and its cost.
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 - there is a football match, going on regardless, in the background. In sharp contrast to the victims, the players are physically and visually co-ordinated and have full kit.
Detail showing football game in the background ©
The football scene might seem to be out of place. Perhaps it is included in contrast to the crippled victims, or to show the indifference of their colleagues to a routine event. However, killing and sport have often been seen as closely linked. The two are often merged, for example, or in the common description of killing as good hunting and sport, and it may be this notion that the artist is trying to convey.
The Western Front, 1919
Mustard gas was a weapon that was used indiscriminately during World War One, causing widespread injury and burns, as well as affecting the eyes. It offered the chance of making significant military advances, but in practice defences against it were usually prepared, soldiers replaceable, and the land it was used on could be contaminated for lengthy periods, so it was not as effective as at first thought.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the leading society artist of his day, was commissioned by the British government to contribute to a Hall of Remembrance for those who died in World War One. He was asked to work on the theme of 'Anglo-American co-operation', but as the American forces were notorious for acting independently, it was not surprising that he could not find a suitable way of illustrating this.
His own choice of theme was in blunt opposition to the suggestion of comradeship. And it led to the creation of an image still frequently used to illustrate the horrors of technological and, specifically, chemical warfare, and to question the morality of its use.
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