John Singer Sargent painting on the horrors of war coming to Philadelphia

John Singer Sargent's monumental oil painting

John Singer Sargent's monumental oil painting

Later this week, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will open an exhibition, World War One and American Art,” marking the centenary of the United States’ entrance into that conflict.

One of the pieces in the show is a massive, 150 square foot painting borrowed from the Imperial War Museum in London. It rarely travels outside of London because it’s so big.

It took several art handlers working together to wrestle the 20-foot long, 7.5 -foot high painting out of its shipping crate (weighing a total of 1700 lbs) and into its original frame, which was shipped separately in its own crate.

The century-old painting by one of America’s most beloved portrait artists – John Singer Sargent – has only made the trip across the Atlantic once before, over 20 years ago when it visited Washington D.C. and Boston.

“The sheer size of it makes it all the more difficult,” said director of exhibitions Judith Thomas, watching the painting come out of its protective shell. When the monumental canvas finally dropped safely back into its frame, the room collectively exhaled.

In 1918, Sargent was living in London, painting landscapes and portraits of rich patrons, for which he was well known. War was not his comfort zone.

Nevertheless, the British government commissioned him to make an epic painting of Anglo-American collaboration during the war. Sargent, in his 60s at the time, began touring active combat zones, on the hunt for subject material.

He came upon a medical station treating soldiers suffering from an attack of mustard gas. They stand in a line, bandaged to protect their injured eyes, hand-on-shoulder walking blindly to a medical tent.

Even though it has nothing to do with Anglo-American collaboration, Sargent convinced the British government that this should be the subject of the commission.

“It’s more a statement of humanity and horrors of war,” said Thomas. “It’s like a Helenistic frieze. A row of ten wounded soldiers relying on one another, eyes covered with gauze, the horrific after effect of mustard gas.”

The painting survived the transition to Philadelphia, where it will be the centerpiece of a major exhibition of the art of World War One, opening Friday, Nov 4, 2016.

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