Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Leaving Cert. - Extra notes on Irish painter Jack B. Yeats


Jack Butler Yeats was born in London in 1871. He was the fourth son of the artist John Butler Yeats and the

brother of the poet William Butler Yeats. Jack B himself wrote six novels, poetry and many plays. Most of his

youth and school days were spent in Sligo with his maternal grandparents Elizabeth and William Pollexfen. His

grandfather had been a seaman, and he inspired in the young Yeats boys a great love for the sea and the people

who lived by it. Yeats stated later in life that every painting he made had somewhere in it a thought of Sligo.

Yeats’ early art education was at the Government School of Design in South Kensington and later at the

prestigious Westminster School of Art. His family moved to Devon, by the sea, but Yeats visited Ireland

regularly. After a visit to Wolf Tone’s grave in 1898, his subject matter was almost exclusively Ireland and its

people. The following year his Sketches of Life in the West of Ireland was shown in Dublin and London.

Drawings for journals, magazines and books, posters and theatrical production formed the basis of his early

career. His artistic style developed greatly as he matured and he developed a unique style, quite unlike the work

of his contemporaries. His techniques were not based on any particular movement or school but were a very

personal response to his subject. His drawing style was bold and linear, sometimes caricatured in keeping with

the larger than life characters he portrayed. In his drawing he managed to create a sense of solidity and volume

by line alone. In paint, watercolour was his main medium. His theme was the West: island fisherman, tramps,

race meetings. In all of his characters we see an involvement by the artist on a human level; these are not

incidental figures but characters of depth, individuality, and pride. His individuals are at times humorous,

sometimes sad, sometimes dark and menacing and always human. In 1905, he travelled with playwright John

Millington Synge around the coast of Mayo and Galway and also collaborated on the book The Aran Islander.

This latter work was based on photographs taken by Synge and depicts the inhabitants of the islands engaged in

typical scenes of thatching and fishing.

By 1910, Yeats had moved to Ireland to live in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, again by the sea. Ireland was in

search of a national identity and Yeats, who had great interest in the Irish Nationalist cause, was on a personal

journey of discovery. The years of turmoil during The First World War and leading up to the Easter Rising of

1916 fanned the flames of Jack B. Yeats’ Irish Nationalism. (His painting of 1905 A Political Meeting, he

regarded as one of his best works.) He wrote Bachelors Walk, in Memory which was a memorial to a group of

people who had been shot by the British, he also sketched the lying-in-state of the Fenian leader, O’Donovan

Rossa. By this time, he was considered the ‘most Irish’ of the Irish painters. Yeats moved to Dublin to be

closer to the pulse of the times and here he threw himself into work, documented the changing city and its

people. The river Liffey, boxing matches, huddled pedestrians were all fodder for the artist to explore questions

of life and humanity.

Yeats worked mostly in oils from about 1905; he used subdued colours with strong tonal contrasts to achieve

dramatic effects. He applied the paint in broad flat strokes, his linear drawing-style showing through. By 1925,

Yeats’ painting technique had significantly changed to an impasto style with vigorous brush marks and a

brighter palette. From the 1940, line almost disappears from his work. In late works such as Grief, 1951, Men of Destiny, 1946 and Returning From the Bathe, Mid-Day, 1948, solidity is defined by strong directional slashes of
the palette knife, the characters emerge from the surface in ripples of light. He was painting from memory, seeking to recapture the emotion of the event. Following the death of his wife in 1947 his work became even more expressive and experimental in theme. He expressed nostalgia for simpler times and used bright, optimistic colours. He painted with his fingers, with a palette knife, using paint directly from the tube in a sort of controlled passion.

Despite the name, the Pollexfens were, in fact, natives of County Sligo.  It was while residing at the Pollexfen’s home in Sligo that Jack Yeats received his education from the years 1879 to 1887.  In Jack Yeats’s heart and artistic soul, Sligo was his home: “Sligo was my school and the sky above.”  His father John Yeats said of his son: “He is ever careful to preserve a certain roll and lurch in his gait, that being the mark of the Sligo man.” Like many Anglo-Irish families, the Yeats family had a presence in both Ireland and England.  The Yeats’s Irish roots go back to Sligo as far as the 18th century, but there was always an English component in the family history.  For example, although Ireland was the birth place of brother William the poet (Dublin) and sister Susan (Sligo), London was the birth place of Jack and two other children where their father John Yeats was studying art. 

The rich visual environment of the Sligo of his childhood underpinned Jack’s early art work.  The ships in harbor, pony carts, fairs, circuses, sporting events and country people were the subjects of the developing artist.  His biographer Hilary Pyle says of Yeats’s Sligo youth: “It was left to the Sligo artist to recreate the spirit and the customs and culture in the West of Ireland in his drawings.”  Jack saw, too, in his years in Sligo his grandmother painting in watercolor.

When he returned to London to live with his family in 1887, Jack Yeats began his formal training as an artist.  His father was well established as a prominent portrait painter at that time, and Jack would in time supersede his father’s acclaim in the estimation of many art critics.  Jack, as young as he was, and his brother William and his sister were expected to supplement the family income.  Although not struggling artists, the Yeats family none-the-less was not wealthy.  Jack’s contribution to the family was his income from illustrations.  He was published in Punch, where he regularly appeared from 1910 to 1941, the Manchester Guardian, The Sketch, and did illustrations for books.  He loved to draw Buffalo Bill and scenes from entertainments, like circuses, horse races, and boxing matches and he even produced a cartoon strip of Sherlock Holmes.  Jack Yeats’s skills as an illustrator were supplemented by his literary skills which he used as editor and illustrator of several monthly magazines.  Technology, at the turn-of-the-century being photography put many illustrators out of work.  Fortunately, Jack Yeats had already begun his career as a watercolor artist.  For example, his watercolor Strand Races, West of Ireland hung in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1895.

The story of Jack Yeats’s marriage plans illustrates his practical side.  When he got engaged to Mary Cottenham White (Cottie) in 1891, he worked day and night on illustrations for any kind of journal which would buy his work so that he could save to buy a home for his bride.  It took him three intense years to buy the house, and then he got married in August 1894.  Jack and Cottie did not have any children.  He and his wife lived in England, with frequent trip to Ireland, as was the Anglo-Irish way, until his return to permanent residence in Ireland in 1910.  

In 1897 he opened his first one-man show of watercolors in the Clifford Galleries in London.  These paintings are a product of his years in residence in England, but the subjects came from his Sligo years.  His brother W.B. suggested that the exhibit could be called “Sketches of Life in the West Country.”  During his years as a watercolorist, Jack Yeats mined the memory of his youth in Sligo.  He painted boxing matches, race meetings, fishermen, ballad singers, pig buyers, shop keepers, and the rest of the world he observed as a boy.  From the success of his first one-man show, Jack Yeats kept his basic show together under the name “Life in the West of Ireland,” adding and subtracting paintings.  This exhibition was displayed in London and Dublin seventeen times until his move to Ireland in 1910.  Although he attracted the attention of Lady Gregory and sold a painting to Patrick Pearse, Jack Yeats was not a popular artist until his later years.  Fortunately, at this time he acquired an American patron, John Quinn, a collector who bought many of Yeats’s paintings.
Jack and Cottie Yeats took up residence in Ireland at a time when the country was on the verge of its independence.  Jack had a native attraction to the heroism of rebels.  In 1898, he attended the centenary celebration of the Rising of 1798 at Carrignagat where he experienced his first stirrings of nationalism, and he went to the lying in state of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915.  As an artist, he painted Robert Emmet in watercolor and the funeral of Harry Boland and Wolfe Tone’s grave in oils.  Patrick Pearse is the inspiration of his painting The Orator.  Jack even took up the task of learning Irish.  He subscribed to the slogan Tír gan teanga tír anam (“A country without a language is a country without a soul.”)  Jack Yeats admired the men of action, but he remained passive.  He was not keen on the Sinn Féiners, but he believed in the Sinn Féin ideal.  In that way he was different from his brother William who supported the Free Staters and even served as a Senator in the Free State government.

By the time that Jack Yeats took up permanent residence in Ireland (1910), he was principally a painter in oils.  James White points out in his introduction to Jack B. Yeats: Drawings and Paintings that Yeats was not influenced by the art movements of his lifetime, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, impressionism, and cubism.  He stayed within the world he knew, Sligo being his greatest influence.  Yeats was prominent enough as a painter internationally to be invited to the legendary Armory Show held in New York City in 1913.  The art critic Alexander J. Finberg saw the Sligo/Irish influence in Yeats’ work:  “The people Mr. Yeats is interested in are a rough, hard-bitten, unshaven, and generally disreputable lot of men.  His broken-down actors practicing fencing, his Circus Dwarf… are subjects no other artist would have chosen to paint.”  Whether Finberg meant his comment as criticism or praise, Jack Yeats would have agreed that the people and scenes he painted were genuine images from a place and time close to his heart.

John Millington Synge was an important influence on Jack Yeats’ growing nationalism.  He accompanied Synge to the Aran Islands, Connemara and North Mayo in 1905.  For the first time, Yeats was immersed in the Irish-speaking areas and the most poverty stricken districts of Ireland.  The “rough” people he met are the ones in his paintings at the Armory show.  Synge wrote about their visit for the Manchester Guardian and Yeats illustrated the articles.  He also illustrated Singe’s books on the West, The Aran Islands and In Wicklow, West Kerry and and Connemara.  Two outcomes from the Synge/Yeats collaboration are Singe’s masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World, and Yeats’s restlessness which led to his taking up permanent residence in Ireland, first in Greystones on the east coast of Wicklow and then in Dublin.

Cottie died in 1947 and her husband in 1957.  Jack’s creative life in the last forty years of his life continued to include paintings but also literary works and the theater.  He designed sets for the Abbey Theatre and wrote novels and plays.  He did not rival his brother William as a writer, but his father John was humble enough to acknowledge that Jack was a better artist than he.  As so often happens with artists, they are discovered late in their lives or after they die.  For Jack Yeats the year 1942 was a signature year.  His exhibit in the Tate Gallery in London helped the public to separate Jack Butler Yeats from John Butler Yeats and William Butler Yeats.

After his death, Jack Yeats’s esteem as an Irish artist had dulled until, in a 1971 exhibition of his paintings at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, his reputation as an important painter was revived.  He is sometimes referred to as the greatest and most influential painter of Irish life and character.  These qualities have led to two of his paintings selling for over one million pounds: The Whistle of a Jacket (£1.4 in 2001) and The Wild One (£1,233,500 in 1999).  At last, someone had quantified Jack Butler Yeats’s value as an artist.


'Men of Destiny'

Men of Destiny is a painting by Irish artist, Jack Butler Yeats, painted in 1946. An oil artwork on canvas, the modernist piece is noted for the strength and vibrancy of its colour palette and is considered to rank amongst Yeats' best work. The painting is on permanent display at the National Gallery of Ireland
The painting depicts three fishermen securing a boat at Rosses Point in Sligo, in the west of Ireland. Painted in the period between the Easter Rising and the foundation of the Irish Republic, it has been suggested that the title could refer to the destiny of ordinary men, like the fishermen shown, to defend Irish freedom.
The phrase "Men of Destiny" has also been used as a translation of the Irish Fianna Fáil (more commonly "Soldiers of Destiny"), which was the Irish name for the Irish Volunteers (as well as featuring in the Irish national anthem and as the name of an Irish potlical party). 
Men of Destiny was painted in 1946, thirty years after the 1916 Rising, a year after the end of the Second World War, and just two before the formal establishment of the Irish Republic.  With this richly-coloured and nostalgic depiction of Sligo fisherman – fastening their boats – Yeats remembers men who had left their daily employment, at various times, to fight for freedom. Yeats has been typically economical in his description of the figures, and the masted boat in the background.
The painting is alive with exuberant colour, including royal blue, indigo, and various greens and heightened with vermillion, lemon yellow and white. The colours of the sky are echoed in the foam of the dark sea and amongst the more vibrant colours of the headland.

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