The Epic Lost: Art & WWI

by María Magdalena Ziegler

Gross abukir war battle
Jean- Antoine Gross, “The Battle of Abukir”, 1806 Oil on canvas, 578 x 968 cm, Musée National du Château, Versailles

The epic representation of a battle with the display of spirited horses, brave soldiers, and smoking cannons had been common in Western art during the 19th Century. Painting had been an impressive media to express heroic moments that must transcend in the memory of the people.

In fact, many of them were key moments in the birth of nations throughout Europe and America. Others referred to the consolidation of old empires and the emerging of new ones. Nevertheless, the so-called Great War (1914-1918) opened a new dimension for war scenes in Western painting.

Suddenly, the saga of nations against oppressors fighting for liberation was substituted by a tragic bloodshed where it was almost impossible to distinguish between victorious and defeated. Artists were no longer focuses on the heroic and the epic of the event, but on the drama of the trenches and the unseen end of the war that was supposed to end all wars.

Art & War

Certainly, war has been a recurring theme in the history of art for various reasons. The reiteration of the theme of the war allowed, among other things, the exaltation of the victorious and the humiliation of the vanquished.

War, as a theme in art, helped to show the strength of one army and the weakness of another, human miseries as a consequence of armed conflicts. It helped to display a discourse of freedom in the face of oppression.

Velazquez Breda Lanzas Guerra war
Diego Velázquez, “The Surrender of Breda (Las Lanzas)”, 1634-35, Oil on canvas, 307 x 367 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid

War in art had been -until the PGM- a good excuse to create heroes and villains, to make national legends and to make forceful declarations of power and panic. Historical painting, as developed since the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, set certain patterns that would be repeated in an identical or similar way by many artists. This developed a very particular historical rhetoric in the visual arts.

From the American painter Benjamin West and his work The Death of General Wolfe (1770), to Francisco de Goya, without forgetting Jacques-Louis David and Eugene Delacroix, war has had a very particular display in very large canvases. Masterly made portraits of honorable officers and soldiers wearing their best uniforms were common, but also the vision of the war in which the imperial forces of Europe face an inferior, uneducated, uncivilized enemy.

All this pays ground for the great representational catastrophe that World War I will mean. There is no possibility of elegant officiality, with feathered helmets and embroidered jackets when in the trenches a Dantesque reality cries out. There is no possibility of presenting the enemy as inferior despite all attempts, because on the battlefield each man is his worst enemy amid the terror inflicted by gas masks and the effects of mutilation.

John Singer Sargent in a mission

Few American painters had the opportunity to be on the front line during the PGM. John Singer Sargent was one of those rare exceptions. He was invited to visit the location of the Western front in July 1918 to make notes for a commission made by the British War Memorials Committee for a painting of heroic dimensions.

Evidently, Sargent was always protected from being too close to the action, so he could not observe what was coming to be an essential event of the conflict: the killing. For Sargent, however, the visit to the front caused him an insane frustration. His disappointment was evident. In his words:

“The more we advanced, the more dispersed and meager is everything. The much closer to danger, the less and more hidden are men. The more dramatic the situation, the emptier the landscape becomes “

During the first visits to the fields where the soldiers were, Sargent found nothing but insignificant and even anecdotal scenes about an apparently irrelevant everyday life of the soldiery. It was when he arrived near Arras that he saw something that should have moved him especially.

There were a few soldiers blinded by a mustard attack on their way to their station. In the view that was staged before him there were no signs of the deadliest war machine ever launched in history. What he saw was a group of soldiers disoriented and incapacitated by the effects of the gas used by the Germans.

Nevertheless, in September of 1918, Sargent wrote to a friend:

“The Ministry of Information expects an epic, but how can one make an epic without masses of men?”

That seems to have been the main concern of the painter, for whom war in a painting surely implied an action of significant and uplifting poses with numerous protagonists.


By the time of the outbreak of WWI, Sargent was already a recognized painter in American and British art circles. When he finished Gassed (1919), the painting for the commission from the British War Memorials Committee, the war was over and the peace talk were on their way to Versailles.

John Singer Sargent Gassed War
John Singer Sargent, “Gassed”, 1919, Oil on canvas, 231 cm × 611 cm (91 in × 240½ in), Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London

To understand the meaning of this unusual work of art, we should revise a few facts. Gassed constitutes an official commission from the British government and it makes it  an appropriate piece to inquire about the loss of the representational epic in art about the war. Additionally, Sargent’s work is the vision from the victorious point of view, which could make it more inclined to narrate epically this conflagration.

However, Sargent did not conceive a composition that pick up an epic rhetoric. The painter opted for a vision that disguises the tragedy of the front as a bucolic anecdote. The monumental canvas (2.31 m x 6.11 m) recalls the moment in which those soldiers incapacitated by the mustard gas attack they had seen in August 1918 are on their way to their station.

John Singer Sargent Gassed War
John Singer Sargent, “Gassed2, 1919 (detail)

One after the other they walk in procession with the hand on the shoulder of whoever they have in front. At times a scene almost childish. The detail of the soldier who raises his knee like trying a playful march in his step, the fact that they are all very young and that there is no martial harmony in their movements draws an innocent atmosphere in the middle of the tragedy to which they are being subjected.

bruegel blind
Pieter Brueghel (the elder), “The Blind Leading the Blind”, 1568, Tempera on wood, 86 cm × 154 cm (34 in × 61 in), Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

In any case, the row of nine soldiers who walk one after another in the central area of the painting recalls a solemn procession in a Greek frieze, but also the walk of the blind that Pieter Bruegel (the old man) painted in 1568.

Singer sargent gassed war
John Singer Sargent, “Gassed”, 1919 (detail)

Those soldiers that lie in the lower strip are the bodies of  Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819) or Delacroix’s Liberty guiding the people (1830), or perhaps, perhaps those condemned in a scene of the Last Judgment. Sargent’s efforts in this portion of the composition are remarkable.

On May 24, 1919, once the painting was finished, the well-known publication American Art News, expressed about it:

“With a terribly painful subject, this work has been handled with reserve and restraint, providing an admirable contrast to the methods with which less skilled artists have adopted similar themes, although it deals with masses of human forms, the composition has been reserved for free. of every effect of the multitude, and an extraordinary sense of dignity of human suffering permeates the various groups in which the composition is divided. ” (Vol. XVII, No. 33)

Beyond Gassed

What Sargent achieved with this painting is an affirmation of the representational catastrophe that WWI implied. An affirmation of the size of one of those wide cinema screens that will arrive 50 years later, but this one is less spectacular.

It is, on the other hand, so serene that at times it may even seem inappropriate. But it is the only way to make the spectator stop to detail the futility of what he sees, of the blind blindfolded youth, armed with a rifle of sight. It is the only way to make the viewer access to this space of reflection about the war, its inept administration and the criminal stubbornness of the generals who never looked for alternative strategies to the slaughter, practically systematic, that was staged daily between the trenches.

John Singer Sargent Generals
John Singer Sargent, “General Officers of the Great War”, 1922, Oil on canvas, 118 × 208 inches (3.0 × 5.3 m), National Portrait Gallery, London.

To deeply understand Gassed, we should take a look at another painting Sargent made a little later. He agreed to paint a group portrait of 22 generals who were all participants in the actions of the war that had just ended. The resulting work, General Officers of the Great War (1922), is the perfect complement to Gassed. And it is a pity that both works are not exhibited together.

That a renowned portraitist like Sargent emptied life from the generals he portrayed in this painting is nothing but the confirmation of what he had already established in the painting of the young soldiers in procession.

Rigid, cold and extremely impersonal are the images of these high officers who are forced to compare themselves with tradition through the gigantic columns in the background. They are so small in moral stature that the soldiers of Gassed grow in every way.

Despite having very similar dimensions and color palette, Gassed has a unique element: the innocence of youth and the sense of sacrifice in their lives. The 22 generals do not have to offer the spectator more than the absurd tedium of their uniform uniforms, their medals and their ceremonial sabers.

The epic lost

The generals Sargent painted do not support each other, rather they seem not to desire contact between them. When confronting the two works, one can just sadly marvel at the irony. The soldiers blinded by gas versus leaders blinded by ambition. The rigidity of their models and their pretentious and indifferent pose ends up being the biggest mockery to all the young people who sacrificed their lives on a senseless conflict.

Sublimating the brutality of the war, Sargent makes us enter the hell that this has been. The artistic representation of the war had served until WWI to show the exultant conqueror and the defeated subdued, to wallow in the powerful strength of one army and the weakness of another.

If these representations had contributed to nurturing national values and patriotism, now they were only the resource of human misery and ruin. The epic legend factory closed with the Great War. In the confrontation of  Gassed and General Officers of the Great War both images, is that the epic is disintegrated and lost in the shame of modern warfare.


2 thoughts on “The Epic Lost: Art & WWI

  1. Pingback: Art, Censorship & WWI | ars.vox

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