John Singer Sargent's Death and Victory  (JSS Gallery Frontpage) (more on Widener Library) (Thumbnail Index)  (What's New)

Death and Victory
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Widener Library, Harvard University
Oil on canvas
439.42 x 186.69 cm (173 x 73.5 in)
Anonymous gift to Harvard University - L109
jpg: Sargent at Harvard

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Margaret E. Gilman, "The Sargent Panels in the Widener Library", Harvard Graduates' Magazine, Dec. 1922, pp. 215-216

Harvard Crimson, Dec. 4, 1928

John Walker III, "To the Editor of the Crimson", Harvard Crimson, June 7, 1929

"Sargent Murals Well Received at First Appearance", Harvard Crimson, June 8, 1929, p. 1

"Mural Paintings and Sargents at Widener", Boston Evening Transcript, March 9, 1929

"The Writing on the Wall", Harvard Crimson, May 31, 1929

"Unveil Sargent's Paenls at Harvard", American Art News, Nov. 11, 1922, p. 5

"Harvard's Heroic War Dead Immortalized by John Singer Sargent", Boston Evening Transcript, Nov. 3, 1922, p. 20

F.W. Coburn, "In the World of Art", The Sunday Herald, Boston, Nov. 5, 1922


From: Ali Mooraj
ag  moo
Date: Fri, 5 Mar 2004 

Dear Natasha

Are you aware of the  reference to this painting in Steven Pinker: "The Blank Slate", Penguin Books 2002, p.160 ?

(Pinker is a Harvard Psychologist)

I have not studied your full gallery site in detail and am not sure whether you are also collecting  interpretations or critiques of Sargent's work. The book by Steven Pinker discusses the current state of the nature-nurture debate on inheritance. He is also the author of "The Language Instinct" and "How the mind works".

Pinker's context is:

As with the other convictions surrounding the Blank Slate,[1] the fear of imperfectability makes some sense in the context of twentieth-century history. A revulsion to the idea that people are naturally bellicose or xenophobic is an understandable reaction to an ideology that glorified war. One of the most memorable images I came across as a graduate student was a painting of a dead soldier in a muddy field. A uniformed ghost floated up from his corpse, one arm around a cloaked and faceless man, the other around a bare-breasted blond Valkyrie. The caption read, "Happy those who with a glowing faith in one embrace clasped death and victory." Was it a kitschy poster recruiting cannon fodder for an imperial exploit?  A jingoistic monument in the castle of a Prussian military aristocrat? No, Death and Victory was painted in 1922 by the great American artist John Singer Sargent and hangs prominently in one of the world's most famous scholarly libraries, the Widener at Harvard University.

That a piece of pro-death iconography should decorate these hallowed halls of learning is a testament to the warmongering mentality of decades past. War was thought to be invigorating, ennobling, the natural aspiration of men and nations. (. . . )

I trust that you will find these extracts interesting and that they will help you to decide whether the non-artistic context is suitable for your gallery.

Your comments would be welcome.

Best regards


From: Natasha

The JSS Gallery’s intent is EXACTLY to share interpretations and/or critiques of Sargent's work which includes negative criticism as well. For me to get involved though, tends to squelch apposing views, however, I am easily baited, and you did ask.

I personally find his statements to be strikingly uninformed. Certainly, one can argue over the effectiveness of Sargent’s chosen imagery, but to say that Sargent was a “pro-death” “warmonger” would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t so poisonously wrong-headed.

I personally disagree with his interpretation of Sargent’s painting. There is more than one dead solder near the feet of the one embracing the two figures – it’s allegorical. I’m not sure the solder is meant to be a ghost of one of the dead – maybe he is – maybe he’s not.

I don’t make a good apologist for Sargent’s art here. I personally don’t think this painting is his best work. One could even argue that Sargent wasn’t the most qualified to take on this commission – he was so  . . .  not necessarily pacifist (as that might imply a thought-out political conviction) but so . . . un-warmongerish. Certainly the caption under the memorial is second rate poetry – totally unneeded.

The full inscription reads:

They crossed the sea crusaders keen to help
The nations battling in righteous cause
Happy those who with that glowing faith
In one embrace clasped death and victory

Stanley Olson, in his biography of Sargent,  says that Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the President of Harvard at the time and Sargent “put their heads together and cooked up the inscription.” (p.266) Sargent never felt compelled to give a caption to any of his other works, so why he felt it was needed here may have more to do with Lowell. But in any event, the poem distracts from the murals overall power – in my opinion. Sargent’s painting speaks for itself; but irregardless of its shortcomings, one should at least recognize its underlying purpose as a war MEMORIAL. 

Pinker seems to be completely incapable of seeing anything outside his own political sensibilities. I mean the guy is entitled to his opinion, but if one is going to make sweeping anthropological judgments about a people and a time not his own, he ought to, at the very least, make an effort to empathize. Who after the war had any stomach for more war? No one! Who was banging the drums of “warmongering”? No one! Pinker got that part right. So why didn’t he get the rest?

Memorials are intended to be a public cathartic acknowledgement of a deep and profound wound in the social psyche – an acknowledgement of loss, an understanding of pain, and the beginning of healing. Some try to marry the loss with a justification of cause (rightly or wrongly) to aid that ease of pain.

Eight million people died in World War I (all nations)! The United States suffered one hundred and seventeen thousand deaths! [2] -- thirty-nine times more than September Eleventh when the country was almost one-third its current size in population. To imply that Sargent is glorifying that is absurd.  For him not to acknowledge death as a huge part of a memorial would be to deny its most fundamental purpose.

But to acknowledge it doesn’t seem to be in Pinker’s makeup. Why he’s so blind to its purpose, I suspect has something to do with how removed he is from the reality of what most American’s felt. How many Harvard students actually died in WWI? I don’t know, they surely had losses, but would anyone venture to guess what a comparison to other public universities or poorer neighborhoods of our large cities would reveal? Or let’s talk about how many Harvard students died during Vietnam, shall we? That the “bellicose” masses should be denied a public healing of a very deep wound, or that Sargent’s art personally offended his perfectly safe and secure sensibility at the “hallowed halls of learning” without understanding its purpose, or even that a very fundamental requirement of putting oneself in another’s shoes, in another time is so absent from his basic vocabulary of understanding seems a bit dangerous.

You can argue the effectiveness of Sargent’s art, and the appropriateness of that ridiculous poetry, but acknowledge it for what it is – a memorial!

What is the Holocaust Museum without empathy and understanding? What is it without the acknowledgment of the public pain and loss? Is it just a museum to the glorification of death and killing? 

I’m sure it won’t even take a hundred years until some other Post-Graduate of Harvard, Professor at MIT, Distinguished Psychologist, Renowned Author and Thinker in the field, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, will pontificate on the Vietnam war memorial in Washington, D.C. -- I can hear it now:

“a piece of pro-death black-granite-monolith should decorate this mall of freedom’s capital is a testament to the warmongering mentality of decades past.”

Pro-death? That's not the testament at all. He just doesn’t get it! And that I find a little troubling.

From: Ali Mooraj

Dear Natasha

Your response is stimulating to read and covers a variety of aspects which one can derive from Sargent's "Death and Victory". On the other hand it is fair to point out that Steven Pinker only refers to it in order to make a general point about attitudes to war.

It should be interesting to contact the author himself and ask for a contribution which focuses on the artwork itself.

Best regards


(Editor's Note --  That is an excellent idea. Rhetorically, I swung pretty hard as a Sargent Apologist.  It’s only right that Professor Pinker be offered the last word.)

From: Steven Pinker 
<p in k>
Date: Thursday, March 11, 2004 

Dear Natasha,

Thanks for the opportunity to reply. Ali is correct, and I believe you have done me an injustice. The passage you cite was not meant as a criticism of Sargent (whom I greatly admire) but as a comment on the times. One only has to imagine the uproar that would follow if such a memorial was unveiled today to see my point. Indeed, I recall reading that even when the painting was dedicated it was criticized for sentimentalizing death in war in a way that was already becoming obsolete.

Thank you again for offering me this forum, and keep up the good work in making Sargent's art accessible.

Steve Pinker
Johnstone Professor
Harvard University

Pinker claims that the Blank Slate (we are born with no innate traits) is one of a triad of fallacies about the human condition. The other two are The Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and The Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology).

Statistics cited from The Longman Companion to the First World War (Colin Nicholson, Longman 2001, pg. 248).   Posted on the net at



Bronze Study Victory Death 

Study for Conflict Between Victory and Death

By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2004 all rights reserved
Created 7/7/2000


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