John Singer Sargent's iconic artwork, Gassed, is on permanent display in IWM London's Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries.
A favourite among visitors and the most requested image by researchers and publishers, the work endures as a lasting symbol of modern art in public service, and of the transformative conﬂict from which it came.
Ahead of its re-display, the much-loved First World War painting has undergone significant conservation work which has revitalised and transformed the viewing experience of the artwork. This includes varnish removal, remedial structural work, as well as conservation of the frame.
Monumental in scale, Gassed is different to anything that artist John Singer Sargent had produced before. It is also the largest painting in the museum’s collection and has been on near-constant display since it was ﬁrst exhibited in 1919.
The painting was commissioned by the government’s British War Memorials Committee (BWMC), as the centrepiece of a newly imagined national memorial to the unprecedented experience and loss of the First World War.
The scene for Gassed is the medical aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918. A line of soldiers with bandaged eyes are led along by an orderly; each man holds the shoulder of the soldier in front. One soldier turns away from the viewer to vomit.
A football match plays on in the background, alluding to the routine nature of such attacks. Gassed depicts a scene rooted in the contemporary moment and the horror of poison gas, a new weapon of the First World War.
Following the conservation of Gassed, IWM worked with Factum Foundation to carry out high resolution imaging of the artwork. This imaging captured high resolution data of the painting, in 3D, colour and infrared. The capture of this data took one week, with Factum Foundation’s 3D scanners slowly, at a distance, working their way across the artwork. Because Gassed was out of its frame for conservation, this was the ideal time to produce an up to date image.
Accompanying the opening of Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries will be a new, fully illustrated IWM publication with detailed photography of the artwork. Featuring a contribution from Singer Sargent’s great nephew, Richard Ormond, and with commentary from IWM’s Head of Art Rebecca Newell.
The most famous painting of the First World War looks different now
Voice over: "This is one of the most famous artworks of the First World War, John Singer Sargent’s Gassed. Or rather, it was.
In recent decades, Gassed was interpreted as a very yellow painting, and you can see why. But it didn’t always look like that. The yellow effect comes from a discoloured varnish applied in the 1970s that has concealed Sargent’s intentions and skewed our interpretation of his work. But now, thanks to meticulous conservation efforts as part of IWM’s new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries, Gassed and its meaning have been reborn."
Becky Newell: "I think I'm in such a privileged situation in that I've been able to witness this year-long journey of having Gassed restored. After more than a hundred years audiences will be able to see Gassed in these galleries as Sargent would have seen it at the time of its creation."
Voice over: "Art has always been a part of conflict. But the First World War was a turning point. For the first time, visual practitioners were asked to record the realities of war, and not to glorify it. In 1916, the British government began an unprecedented act of sponsorship of British artists. The various war artist schemes produced a huge number of now famous works exploring every aspect of the conflict."
Becky Newell: "There was a huge body of work already emerging, but by 1918 it was understood that we wanted, as a society, a place that we could come and think about what had happened, think about the sacrifice and loss that had been experienced across society by all kinds of people. So in 1918 the government put together what we now know as the British War Memorials Committee that would do that very thing, memorialise the war for all time and for posterity for generations to come."
Voice over: "The committee planned to build, what they called, the Hall of Remembrance - a site of pilgrimage which would allow visitors to experience the breadth of the war through British war artists. Four supersize canvasses would form the focus for the hall. These twenty foot by seven foot paintings would reflect the heroism and sacrifice of war. One of the artists approached for these works was John Singer Sargent."
Becky Newell: "So by the point of the commission coming around Singer Sargent was an older artist. He was in his 60s, he'd had a huge and illustrious career painting society portraits, he was hugely well connected. He was an American artist but he'd made London his home for several decades by this point and in some ways, because he was so established and so at the height of his powers, he's quite a strange commission. But the government obviously felt that he was an an absolutely preeminent artist in fact so much that the Prime Minister wrote him a letter begging him to take the commission."
Voice over: "In July 1918, Sargent headed for the front, accompanied by his long-time friend Henry Tonks. Because of his background, Sargent had been asked to paint on the theme of Anglo-American co-operation. But he struggled to find his inspiration. Sargent painted over 35 watercolours while in France, but generally found that the closer he was to the front, the harder it was to find the masses of men needed for a monumental sized painting. That was until late August, when Sargent and Tonks witnessed the aftermath of a German gas attack near Arras. Gas was a new weapon, first utilised on the Western Front in 1915. The scene was a dramatic one."
Becky Newell: "When he witnessed the scene he immediately was very struck and actually Tonks writes in his diary immediately Sargent made lots of notes, he was very, very struck by the scene. And I think he then immediately realised that he had found his subject and that he'd found the eyewitness experience that would translate into this monumental timeless scene memorialising the First World War as a whole."
Voice over: "Sargent convinced the committee to drop the Anglo-American theme and began work on Gassed soon afterwards. He worked on a number of preparatory sketches in France, paying particular attention to details like uniforms, rifles and water bottles. He then returned to his studio in London, where the painting was completed by March of 1919. The result was an exceptional work, a moving account of the suffering and sacrifice of war."
Becky Newell: "So, in many senses Gassed is an eyewitness, contemporary scene about the new technology of gas and about the experience of soldiering in this very new and modern way. In another way, it has elements and form that is very much about drawing on those Renaissance examples that the committee had really set out within their brief. For example, we have a frieze of soldiers going across the middle line and that draws on many examples from the past.
Sargent was most likely looking at Bruegel in terms of the Parable of The Blind Leading the Blind. He was probably looking at Signorelli in terms of the mass of swirling bodies. So he was definitely inserting himself into this longer art historical arc. But also thinking about that very contemporary, modern, current affairs, eyewitness experience."
Voice over: "However, Gassed did not immediately find a home. Due to a lack of funds, the Hall of Remembrance was never built. Instead, the newly founded Imperial War Museum was designated as the permanent home for the completed collections. Gassed was quickly recognised as an era-defining work. Over the following 100 years, it became a firm favourite among visitors and one of the most iconic objects in the IWM collection."
Becky Newell: "For the vast majority of Gassed's life it has been on permanent display at IWM. It wasn't until the 1970s that there was some intervention that happened in Gassed. The painting was cleaned and then new varnish applied to both preserve and protect the painting and also so that the colours would really be bright and the painting would be kind of seen in a really smooth and visually arresting way."
Voice over: "The resins used at the time were artificial. It was believed that they would not discolour and would have longevity for decades to come. However, gradually, and imperceptibly over time those resins turned yellow. In the 50 years that followed, the discoloured varnish became part of the narrative around the painting."
Becky Newell: "Because it's a gradual process over time you start to narrativise how the yellow appears for audiences and for us as staff at IWM. So we were thinking about the fact it was about mustard gas, the sunrise or sunset scenario, the khaki of the uniforms and actually overall had decided really that it didn't fit as well into his output."
Voice over: "That was until IWM began work on the new Blavatnik Art Film and Photography galleries. The project gave IWM the opportunity to assess Gassed for the first time. The painting was entered into a year-long conservations process, only then did the extent of the discolouration become clear."
Philip Young: "I sort of had this moment when I realised there's a lot more varnish than I thought. I let everybody know, I said, "you've got to come and see this because there's potentially going to be a big change." The cleaned area here and this is where the varnish remains. You can see it is this sort of warm yellow. The fact that we're addressing the old varnish now doesn't mean that that's a fault, it's just a natural process of the ageing of the materials used. It's almost certain that the last restorers were also doing exactly the same by addressing a really dark and discoloured varnish."
Voice over: "Throughout 2022 and 23 conservators meticulously restored the 20ft work cleaning each small section 6 to 8 times to gradually remove the dirt and varnish. In doing so, they reveal details that had been lost for over 50 years."
Philip Young: "What's really come through is the depth. So here it's quite sort of flat and then you can see the areas where the varnish is clear you get the cool distant colours coming through. We can see that the football match is now two teams with different coloured shirts, which really wasn't clear before, and also that they're playing in the sun. It's still quite yellow at this end and will be because that's the colour of the light. But you can see these little windows like here all these really beautiful pinks and blues started showing through and they're consistent with a fine clear evening tending towards sunset."
Voice over: "After conservation, it's clear that Gassed fits so much better with the rest of Sargent’s work. Next IWM worked with Factum Foundation to carry out high resolution imaging of the artwork in 3D, colour and infrared. Before Gassed was installed in the new Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography galleries. Freed from the varnish of the 70s, Sargent’s Gassed has been given new life. It will continue to provoke and inspire visitors for generations to come."
John Singer Sargent's Gassed
In John Singer Sargent’s Gassed, IWM’s Head of Art Rebecca Newell traces the origins of this large and powerful painting in the ﬁnal months of the First World War and celebrates the vibrancy and visual power of the work, revealed once again during recent conservation.
The book reﬂects on the challenges of creating and displaying a canvas of such size and the dramatic impact the work has had on generations of visitors to IWM.
Finally, it considers the painting’s enduring legacy in the context of art inspired by conﬂict – a legacy now secured for future generations.
Gassed is available to buy now from the IWM Shop.