Jan Gordon on John Singer Sargent's "Gassed"

John Singer Sargent's painting "Gassed" was named picture of the year in 1919 by The Times (May 3rd 1919, page 15) and praised by Churchill at the Royal Academy banquet for its "brilliant genius and painful significance."

John Singer Sargent's painting "Gassed" (modified from © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1460))


Jan Gordon, writing in the Athenaeum ("The Royal Academy. I.", 9th May 1919, pages 306-7), was less sure of the picture's merits.

"This picture is a descriptive work; it recounts the result of a gas attack in very much the language that an English schoolboy of the self-conscious age might use ... It seems as though after much preliminary the schoolboy had mounted to the top of the Trafalgar Monument and thence shouted his simple message through a megaphone."

Jan Gordon had written art criticism for The New Witness (under pseudonym John Salis) from 1916 to 1919 (when Paul Nash took over his column), and wrote for the Athenaeum during 1919. He later wrote a series of articles on Art for The New Age, beginning with the last issue of Volume 26 and continuing in Volume 27 (1920).

Gordon had made war art himself while serving with the Royal Naval Medical Section during WW1 (Brian Foss. 2007. War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press). Many of his paintings from this time can be seen here. Gordon had emphasised the importance of war artists having direct experience of their subject matter: "Those stay at homes - who after all can only be old men, unfits or conscientious objectors - cannot know what war is." (John Salis, The New Witness, 11 March 1916).




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