Jack B Yeats, younger brother of Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats, was born in London on 29th August 1871, though he spent almost a decade of his formative years growing up in Sligo with his maternal grandparents, William and Elizabeth Pollexfen, before returning to his parents home in London in 1887.
Jack B Yeats early painting style was said to be of an illustrator or cartoonist, producing the first cartoon strip version of Sherlock Holmes in 1894, he began to work regularly in Oils in 1906.
His early pictures are simple lyrical depictions of landscapes and figures, predominantly from the West of Ireland, especially from his childhood home of Sligo), these early painting contained a certain element of Romanticism, but it is grounded in fine observation and draughtsmanship.
Beginning around 1920, Jack B Yeat’s developed into an intensely Expressionist artist, moving from illustration to Symbolism. He was sympathetic to the Irish Republican cause, but not politically active. However, he believed that ‘a painter must be part of the land and of the life he paints’, and his own artistic development, as a Modernist and Expressionist, helped articulate a modern Ireland of the twentieth century, partly by depicting specifically Irish subjects, but also by doing so in the light of universal themes such as the loneliness of the individual, and the universality of the plight of man. When he died, Samuel Beckett wrote that ‘Yeats is the great of our time…he brings light as only the great dare to bring light to the issue-less predicament of existence’.
Jack B Yeats won a silver medal at the 1924 Olympic Games in painting.
Yeats’ favourite subjects include the Irish landscape (and sky), horses, the circus and travelling players. His early paintings and drawings are distinguished by an energetic simplicity of line and colour, his later paintings by an extremely vigorous and experimental treatment of often thickly applied paint.
He frequently abandoned the brush altogether, applying paint in a variety of different ways, and was deeply interested in the expressive power of colour. Despite his position as the most important Irish artist of the twentieth century (and the first to sell for over £1 m), he took no pupils and allowed no one watch him work, so he remains a unique figure. The artist closest to him in style is his friend, the Austrian painter, Oskar Kokoschka.
Besides painting, Jack B Yeats had a significant interest in theatre and in literature. He designed sets for the Abbey Theatre, but three of his own plays were also produced there. He wrote novels in a stream of consciousness style that James Joyce acknowledged, and also many essays. His literary works include The Careless Flower, The Amaranthers (much admired by Samuel Beckett), and The Charmed Life.
Jack B Yeats’ paintings usually bear poetic and evocative titles. He was the youngest son of Irish portrait painter John Butler Yeats, and the brother of the Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats, both of whom fully acknowledged all his talents. Indeed, his father recognized that Jack was a far better painter than he, and also believed that ‘some day I will be remembered as the father of a great poet, and the poet is Jack’.
Jack B Yeat’s was married to the painter Mary Cottenham White (‘Cottie’) in 1894 and was elected a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1916.
Information sourced from The National Gallery website.
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