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.
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.
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.
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.