The First German Gas Attack at Ypres

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Catalogue information based on the catalogue raisonné by David Cleall. For this and full details of the exhibitions cited, see the links below. Any auction prices quoted may not include all fees and taxes, such as VAT and Artist's Resale Right charges.

The First German Gas Attack at Ypres

The First German Gas Attack at Ypres, 1918 (commissioned by the Canadian War Records Office – finished Nov. 1918)
Oil on canvas, 304.8 cm x 365.8 cm

'"The Germans attacked with gas in the afternoon of April 22nd, 1915, and the first to feel the effects of the poisonous fumes were the French soldiers on the Canadians' left. The French troops, largely made up of Turcos and Zouaves, surged wildly back over the canal and through the village of Vlammertinghe just at dark. The Canadian reserve battalions (of the 1st Brigade) were amazed at the anguished faces of many of the French soldiers, twisted and distorted by pain, who were gasping for breath and vainly trying to gain relief by vomiting." – Canada in Flanders, Vol. I. The French infantry, Zoauves and Turcos, thrown into disorder by the German gas attack, are seen retreating wildly past the guns of a Canadian Field Battery, while Canadian gunners endeavour to stay the advance of the German infantry, who are within 200 yards of the Canadian Batteries' – Royal Academy (1) 1919 catalogue.
PROVENANCE: (see here): National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (transferred from the Canadian War Memorials, 1921) > Canadian War Museum, Ottawa (on permanent loan from 2005)
EXHIBITION HISTORY: Royal Academy (1) 1919 ('There is … safety in predicting that, apart from any artistic importance it may possess, [future generations of Canadians] will not learn very much of "The First German Gas Attack at Ypres" from Mr. W. Roberts's picture'– The Times, 4 Jan. 1919; 'The convulsive movements and grimaces of the terror-stricken, choking and vomiting Turcos and Zouaves … certainly border on the grotesque, but surely the fine flowing rhythm of the design and the dazzling splendour of the colour pattern justify the accentuation of the horror of the scene by means of gesture. This gas attack was one of the ghastliest incidents of the war, and its pictorial interpretation is intended to strike horror. But Mr. Roberts has introduced abstract qualities of design which bring an otherwise impossible subjec within the range of art' – The Observer, 12 Jan. 1919; 'Mr. Roberts has preserved the dramatic power which characterised some of his youthful drawings. Here … is great concentration on design … violent, audaciously contorted movement with a complement of violent colour being the key-note … If one is not carried away by the vitality of this performance, there is still an element of incompleteness to be found in it. Certain passages which are properly appreciated only at close range, and which are lost at the distance necessary to take in the whole, suggest that the artist was working in too small a studio, or for some reason was unable to obtain a complete grasp of his large canvas' – Burlington Magazine, Feb. 1919, p. 80), New York 1941, Tate Gallery 1965, National Gallery of Canada 2000

Home page | Chronology | Bibliography | Collections | Exhibitions
News | Gallery | Auction results | The artist’s house | Contact
List of works illustrated on the site

Catalogue raisonné:
chronological | alphabetical