Irish artist William Orpen began his career as a society painter. Over the course of the first decade of the 20th century, he created portraits that wouldn't look out of place next to a John Singer Sargent, as well as Impressionist plein-air pieces.

Portrait of Herbert Barnard John Everett, c. 1900

Portrait of Grace, 1907

Portrait of James Staats Forbes, c. 1900

Midday on the Beach, 1910

When he was commissioned for service during the First World War, however, Orpen's peaceful life came to a halt

Orpen was assigned to desk work in London in early 1916, but within a year was transferred to a position that better suited his skills: war artist. His first assignment took him to France, where he was stationed near the Somme. At first, Orpen was reluctant to paint the devastation he saw around him, sticking to the familiar world of portraits. 

Ready to Start (self portrait), 1917

Portrait of Winston Churchill, 1916

Portrait of Lieutenant RTC Hoidge, MC, 1917

Try as he might, though, Orpen couldn't escape the horrors of war

After an official reprimand, Orpen ventured out into the battlefields—and his world was shattered. Like many Europeans, Orpen was deeply shaken by the brutality and devastation of war. The difference? Capturing what he saw was literally his job. Reflecting the trauma Orpen felt touring the wreckage of abandoned battlefields, his paintings and sketches from the latter half of 1917 and 1918 are worlds away from the calm portraits of his youth. It's not just the content matter that's different: Orpen's new style relied on blindingly bright colors, experimental compositions, and elements of the surreal.

Dead Germans in a Trench, 1917

Four German Prisoners by a French Village, 1917

A Death among the Wounded in the Snow, 1917

A Howitzer in Action, 1917

A Man Resting Near Arras, 1917

After a Fight, 1917

Adam and Eve at Peronne, 1918

Blown Up, Mad, 1917

Harvest, 1918

Skeleton of a German Soldier, 1917

Tanks, 1917

The Gas Mask, 1917

The Madwoman of Douai, 1918

Bombing, Night, 1918

After the war ended, Orpen returned to his portrait-painting career

While Orpen's later paintings, like his earliest, are beautiful portraits of wealthy British and Irish people, something's not quite the same. Orpen retained some of the brash colors of his battlefield paintings—and the humor and energy he used to capture in his subjects' faces is gone. Now they have sad, worried eyes that look like they've seen too much.

Portrait of Vivien St. George, 1918

Portrait of Evelyn Marshall Field, 1921

Portrait of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, 1919

Portrait of Gertrude Sanford, 1922