Famous artist, brother of WB and Ireland’s first Olympic medalist
During Jack B Yeats’ lifetime, his success as an artist was often overshadowed by the literary triumphs of his older brother, the poet William B Yeats. But his own accomplishments were many: he won Ireland’s very first medal at the Olympics; his plays were produced on the abbey stage; and his works have been collected by authors Graham Greene, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
To mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, on August 29, 1871, the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin is hosting Jack B Yeats: Painting & Memory, the most comprehensive exhibition of his paintings in fifty years.
The exhibition is curated by DÃ³nal Maguire and Dr Brendan Rooney and features 84 works by Yeats in oil. Two-thirds of them have been borrowed from private collections, and most have never been shown in public before. One of them, a painting titled Sleep Sound, belonged to musician David Bowie at the time of his death in 2016.
Remarkably, for someone so famous as a fine art painter, Yeats trained as a draftsman and illustrator and worked at these activities for many years before moving into oil. Her decision to pursue a career as a commercial artist may well have been inspired by her father John’s experience.
âJohn Yeats gave up a brilliant career as a lawyer to become a painter,â explains Maguire. âBut he struggled with the business side of things. He relied on commissions for portraits to support his family, but left unfinished paintings or failed to collect due payments. The Yeats family were often financially insecure, and maybe that’s why Jack turned straight to the illustrator for magazines. He could make a living with it.
However, the urge to become a more serious artist was still there, and Yeats began experimenting with watercolor in his twenties. âWatercolors were probably more accessible to him as a medium than then. It was only at the end of his thirties that he began to paint in oils. At that time, they were considered the most serious medium, and the Royal Hibernian Academy would have expected him to submit works in oil rather than watercolor if he wished to be in their exhibitions.
In the beginning, at least, his oil paintings – with their straight lines and flat areas of color – borrow a lot from his watercolor work.
“But his later work, paintings he did in the sixties, seventies and eighties … that’s when he became more and more experimental,” says Maguire. . âHe used palette knives, or even his fingers, to apply the paint, and he often worked on it with the wooden end of the paintbrush. He really pushed his materials, and these latest paintings are probably his most expressive. ”
Yeats, as the title of the exhibition suggests, loved to paint from memory and many of his works were inspired by his upbringing in Sligo, where he lived with his grandparents until the age of sixteen. His favorite subjects included scenes from Irish rural life, such as horse races and boxing matches, as well as sailors, travelers, dancers and circus performers. But he also painted mysterious human figures in the landscape. One of those paintings was A Morning, which caught the attention of a young Samuel Beckett when he visited Yeats’ studio in Fitzwilliam Square.
âBeckett bought A Morning for Â£ 30 and paid it off in installments,â says Maguire. âThe painting represents a lone horseman standing in an empty village. Yeats traveled with JM Synge to congested neighborhoods when he was young, so he may have been inspired by something he saw at the time, a memory from his own life experience. Or it could be a reference to popular culture, that image of the lone rider on horseback.
Yeats was 52 when, in 1924, he achieved success at the Summer Olympics in Paris, France.
“It was the first time Ireland participated in the Olympics after independence,” said Maguire. “At that time, the games had an arts and culture category, and Yeats won a silver medal for his painting, The Liffey Swim.”
The Liffey Swim commemorates an annual swimming competition held in Dublin from 1920, and features a crowd cheering on swimmers as they approach O’Connell Bridge.
If Yeats arrived late at oil painting, he came still later to compete with his brother William in literature; he was already in his sixties when his plays – including Harlequin’s Positions, In the Sand and La Noo – were staged at the National Theater in Dublin.
âYeats was a modernist,â says Maguire. âHe tried to work in different media. When he started writing, it was children’s plays. Then he wrote dramas for the stage, and a number of novels. They were very experimental.
Yeats continued to work almost to the end. He made 1,200 oil paintings, and more than half of them date from the last ten years of his life. Sleep Sound is one of the last three paintings he has worked on. âSleep Sound presents two characters asleep in the bog,â explains Maguire. “It could be thought of as dealing with the loss of life through the metaphor of sleep.”
David Bowie bought Sleep Sound for Â£ 45,500 when it was auctioned in 1993. In November 2016, it was sold by his estate for Â£ 233,000, at the Bowie / Collector Modern and Contemporary Art auction at Sotheby’s London. By Yeats’ standards, this might be considered a bargain; several of his paintings, such as Reverie, Evening in Spring and The Wild Ones, have sold for over a million euros, a sign of the flourishing of his reputation since his death in 1957.
âToday Yeats is one of Ireland’s most beloved and celebrated artists,â says Maguire. âHis work is inherently personal, but he explored universal themes, so he’s always open to interpretation, which is exactly what he wanted.
- Jack B Yeats: Painting & Memory is at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin until February 6, 2022. For more information: nationalgallery.ie
Jack B Yeats was born in London in 1871. He was the youngest of four children, after William, Sarah and Elizabeth, born to John and Susan (nÃ©e Pollexfen) Yeats. As a child, he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents in Sligo, where the family had a shipping business. Returning to live with his family in London in 1887, he trained as an illustrator at the South Kensington School of Art and the Chiswick School of Art. He found work with magazines such as Boy’s Own Paper, and also wrote for Punch magazine, under the pseudonym W Bird.
In Chiswick, Yeats met Mary ‘Cottie’ Cottenham White, another student. They married in 1894 and settled in Strate, Devon. He began to paint watercolors, which he exhibited in London. In 1910 the couple moved to Ireland, first living in Greystones, Co Wicklow before moving to Donnybrook in 1917, and finally settling at 18 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin in 1929. They had no children. .
The Yeats family were of Anglo-Irish Protestant ancestry, but considered themselves Irish nationalists. All four Yeats siblings were active in Irish cultural life, especially in Dublin. William, the eldest, is best known today for his poetry, but he also wrote novels, short stories and plays, and founded the Abbey Theater with his friend Augusta Gregory. Susan and Elizabeth Yeats, known as Lily and Lolly, worked in the arts and crafts industry in London before moving to Dublin, where they were instrumental in founding the craft collective Dun Emer and the Cuala Press publishing company.
Jack Yeats’ reputation as a particularly nationalist painter rests in part on his love of Celtic mythology, but also on his practice of painting contemporary scenes such as A Political Meeting (in the West of Ireland) in 1905, and Bachelor’s Walk, in Memory, which commemorated a group of protesters shot dead by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in Dublin city center in 1914.
A few years after the death of his wife Cottie in 1947, Yeats moved to Portobello Nursing Home, near the Grand Canal. He died there at the age of 85 in 1957 and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross. His friend Samuel Beckett wrote about him that he was “with the greats of our time … a door.”