Being an Artist

The art of the first world war (1914–1918). Capturing the impact of conflict through canvas.


The first world war, also known as the great war, was a cataclysmic event that left an indelible mark on the course of history. Beyond the trenches, battles, and geopolitical changes, the war also sparked a profound artistic response. Artists during this period grappled with the unprecedented scale and devastation of the conflict, creating works that not only documented the horrors of war but also offered a glimpse into the human experience amid chaos. Two masterpieces from this era, John Singer Sargent's "Gassed" and Otto Dix's "War Triptych," stand out as poignant examples of how artists captured the impact of the first world war.


Anticipation. Martin Leighton

"Gassed" by John Singer Sargent: John Singer Sargent, renowned for his portraiture and society paintings, turned his attention to the battlefield with his monumental work, "Gassed." Completed in 1919, the painting depicts a scene from the aftermath of a mustard gas attack during the Battle of Ypres in 1918. Sargent, an official war artist for the British government, chose to highlight the human cost of chemical warfare.
In "Gassed," a line of blinded soldiers, their eyes bandaged, walk towards a dressing station. The composition conveys the sheer scale of the devastation, with the wounded stretching into the distance. Sargent's use of muted tones and atmospheric perspective intensifies the sense of desolation. The central figure, a lone soldier being led by a medical orderly, serves as a symbol of the physical and emotional toll exacted by war.

Sargent's decision to depict the impact of mustard gas, a weapon that inflicted horrific injuries, was a deliberate choice to expose the brutality of modern warfare. "Gassed" captures the vulnerability and resilience of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity, making it a powerful testament to the human cost of the First World War.

"War Triptych" by Otto Dix: Otto Dix, a German artist who served as a machine gunner on the Western Front, channeled his firsthand experiences into the creation of the "War Triptych." Completed between 1929 and 1932, this triptych is a visceral portrayal of the physical and psychological traumas endured by soldiers during the war.

The first panel, titled "The War," depicts the chaos of battle, with soldiers charging forward amid explosions and smoke. The second panel, "After the Battle," reveals the gruesome aftermath, strewn with corpses and wounded soldiers. The final panel, "The Homecoming," portrays a disillusioned and disfigured veteran returning to a society seemingly indifferent to his sacrifice.

Dix's use of sharp lines and bold colors contributes to the nightmarish quality of the triptych, reflecting the harsh realities of trench warfare. The explicit and unflinching nature of the imagery challenges the glorified narratives of war prevalent at the time. "War Triptych" serves as a condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of conflict, exposing the toll it takes on the bodies and minds of those who endure it.


The art of the first world war, as exemplified by John Singer Sargent's "Gassed" and Otto Dix's "War Triptych," goes beyond mere representation; it serves as a profound commentary on the human condition during a tumultuous period. These masterpieces capture the raw emotions, physical toll, and enduring impact of the Great War, ensuring that the sacrifices and sufferings of those who lived through it are not forgotten. Through the canvas, artists conveyed the harsh realities of war, fostering a deeper understanding of the human experience amid the chaos of the First World War.

Painting of a line of soldiers walking apparently blindGassed. John Singer Sargent. Source: Wikipedia