Artist Dick Heldar returns to 1890's England from the war in the Sudan after sustaining eye injuries and turns to painting for a living. While his realistic paintings of scenes from the war in Sudan slowly achieve a certain popularity, he ekes a living painting romanticized portraits.
Eventually, the old war injury to his eyes starts getting worse and Heldar realizes he is going blind. Before he completely loses his sight, Dick resolves to paint his masterpiece, Melancholia, using a prostitute named Bessie as a model. He drinks heavily to keep his eyesight going.
Dick deliberately drives Bessie to hysteria to get the right expressions. Dick's eyesight fades just as he completes his masterpiece, and he collapses in exhaustion. Bessie returns and destroys the painting in revenge, smearing the still wet paint across the canvas. When Dick invites his friend, Maisie, to view his masterpiece (which he can no longer see), she cannot bring herself to tell Dick about his ruined canvas.
Bessie returns and reveals she has destroyed his masterpiece. In despair, Dick travels back to the Sudan and joins his old company. He persuades his friend Torpenhow to put him on a horse and joins the charge into enemy lines with the other soldiers, where he is quickly shot and killed.