A golden-haired child lies on the bank of a stream. He holds a pink flower over the water and gazes down at the reflection which is alluded to by a stroke of yellow beneath. A verdant hedge of green shrubs and wild irises closes off the horizon and adds to the intimacy of the scene. The boy’s engrossed expression, his serene face with wide set eyes and ruby lips, and the crouched form of his body are reminiscent of the Ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, in which a youth falls in love with his reflection and is punished by the gods by being turned into a narcissus flower. But in Yeats’s painting the figure seems to be less interested in himself than by the plant and the water. His curiosity is more about the world around him.
The poetic title, The Lonely Sea, may suggest the purpose of the experiment – the dispatching of a botanical specimen to the ocean but equally it indicates the solitariness of the boy. The golden-haired child is a recurring motif in Yeats’s later paintings. He appears in Tinkers’ Encampment. Blood of Abel, (1940, Private Collection), Above the Fair, (1946, National Gallery of Ireland) and Grief, (1951, National Gallery of Ireland). In Sea Depths, (1947, Private Collection), a golden haired boy looks over the side of a boat into the water.
Hilary Pyle has suggested that the child ‘proclaims his symbolic role for the artist’ and that his freedom to create and imagine are akin to that of the painter or the writer. (Hilary Pyle, op. cit., Vol.II, p.1064). In The Lonely Sea he exemplifies the visionary capacity of humankind and with his bare feet drawn up beneath him the child is also closely bound to nature. His flesh is sculpted out of rich impasto paint. The swirling forms of green and yellow pigment unite the figure with the surrounding foliage. His tousled hair is blown by the same breezes that rustle the leaves behind him. The outline of the shrubbery echoes that of the reclining figure, but the wild unsettled movement of light and shade, embodied in the range of brushstrokes indicates the tenuousness of the moment and the inability of humankind to prevent the onward march of time and the natural world.
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