Art Historian Discusses Sargent's World War I Mural "Gassed" at National Museum of Health and Medicine

By Lauren Bigge
NMHM Public Affairs Coordinator

Art professor Elizabeth Tebow, Ph.D., explained to a packed audience at the National Museum of Health and Medicine's Medical Museum Science Café on Feb. 27 what motivated portrait painter John Singer Sargent to depict soldiers wounded by mustard gas for his World War I painting titled "Gassed."

A reproduction of "Gassed" is featured in a new exhibit at NMHM titled "PUT ON YOUR MASK, YOU DAMN FOOL!" The exhibit and other programming at NMHM this year are part of the Department of Defense museum's centennial commemoration of World War I.

Tebow, who became a volunteer docent at NMHM in 2016, said that the expatriate American artist Sargent reluctantly began supporting the war after his niece was killed in a German rocket attack on Paris in March 1918. He mostly painted portraits, but always wanted to expand his work. He undertook a commission from the British Ministry of Information to commemorate American and British involvement. The 9-foot-by-21-foot painting was to be exhibited in the Hall of Remembrance, which was never built.

Sargent spent four months in the summer of 1918 in France searching for a subject. He came upon a British dressing station at the small village of Bailleulval, saw a field filled with blindfolded, blistered men suffering from exposure to mustard gas, and described it as "a harrowing sight." He had been influenced by his friend, French impressionist painter Claude Monet. "He was interested in the French impressionist idea of painting outdoors," Tebow said. "He was intrigued by the fleeting effects of motion, light and color."

The sun is low on the horizon in "Gassed" and the men depicted are clearly suffering instead of appearing heroic, Tebow said. "Even though he was showing this horror, he also wanted to give it some sense of momentousness, and significance," Tebow said. "He used the literary device of quoting [which means a reference to another piece of art to convey to a meaning]. The frieze-like nature of it brings to mind the Parthenon frieze, and other art sources, including works by Pieter Brueghel and Auguste Rodin. In preparation for it, he [drew] a lot of charcoal sketches; be sure to look at those [on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.] in the exhibit."

World War I saw the advent of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and numerous agents were deployed by the combatants. "The worst part of mustard gas was the vesicant; if it hit the skin, it caused horrific blisters," Tebow explained. Dispersed gas could blow back as well as leave a fog. "It would not only disorient the men, it would terrify them," she said. "It would cause chaos amongst the troops. It was also psychological warfare because of that."

In its early years, the NMHM (then known as the Army Medical Museum) collected fine art portraits of museum founders as well as individuals important to the history of military medicine. The museum's art collections later evolved to document the expression of personal experiences by physicians, patients, and others who have contributed to or who have been affected by military medicine. NMHM's Otis Historical Archives cares for more than 100 works of fine art that were created as a means of artistic expression. Additionally, the collection houses more than 600 medical illustrations made for instructional purposes from the time of the Civil War through the present day.

NMHM's Medical Museum Science Cafés are a regular series of informal talks that connect the mission of the Department of Defense museum with the public. The NMHM was founded as the Army Medical Museum in 1862 and is an element of the Defense Health Agency Research and Development Directorate. For more information on upcoming events, call 301-319-3303 or visit