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One wouldn’t expect, looking at his 1919 painting Gassed, that John Singer Sargent could be described thus by the Art Institute of Chicago: “As one of the most sought-after and prolific portraitists of international high society, American expatriate John Singer Sargent painted the cosmopolitan world to which he belonged with elegance and a bravura touch.”

The dramatic composition and range of (highly expressive) emotion are very much his own, however.

In depicting the suffering victims of a World War I mustard gas attack, Sargent pulls no punches—the Imperial War Museum in London points out the “line of temporarily blinded soldiers in the background, one soldier leaning over vomiting onto the ground.”

Perhaps the most striking part of the painting isn’t the anguish. It’s the lack of anguish.

A number of the soldiers at the front of the composition lounge with an air more of boredom than despair, while in the distant background people play soccer in cheerful uniforms.

It’s that sense of normality—the complacency of the subjects—that makes the piece so incredibly gut-wrenching.

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