J ack B. Yeats, an experimental, individual and deeply patriotic painter, revered for his expressive renderings of Irish life, occupies an integral place within 20th-century Irish art. He was born into a remarkable, artistic family: his father John Butler Yeats was a portrait painter; his sisters, Susan and Elizabeth, were prominent figures in the Irish Art and Crafts Movement and his brother was W.B. Yeats, the internationally acclaimed poet and winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature. Both poet and painter used their art forms to express Romantic Nationalism. Together, the family were an integral part of the Celtic Revival movement in the early 20th century, readdressing Irish culture through literary and visual artistic forms.
Jack B. Yeats’ artistic career developed through various stages. He began in the 1890s as an illustrator of comics, magazines and children’s books, where he predominantly used strong lines and limited colour.
In the early 1900s he turned to watercolour and showed an increasing interest in scenes of everyday life. It was not until circa 1910 that he began to use oil. It was to prove a decisive turning point, and for the next forty years he produced the body of work for which he is most celebrated, employing a striking artistic technique which became increasingly expressionistic, bold and colourful.
The Collection of the Late Patrick Kelly contains five paintings by Yeats through which the evolution of his career can be traced. The earliest example is an important, historical work, Early Morning, Glasnevin, painted in 1923. Stylistically it is consistent with Yeats’ oils from the 1910s, being more literal and tightly executed and employing soft, muted colours. The tones too reflect the sombre subject matter of the work.
At Glasnevin cemetery at dawn, a group of men are gathered around a grave. The identity of the deceased is not known; however, the location suggest they may have been a victim of the ongoing troubles. Glasnevin is where the nationalist leader, Michael Collins, was buried after being killed in the Irish Civil War in 1922. In the year the present work was painted, Dublin was described as a city of funerals.
Yeats painted a similar subject in 1923, The Funeral of Harry Boland (Collection of The Model, Sligo, Ireland), depicting graveside crowds at the burial of Boland, a former colleague of Michael Collins. When Yeats exhibited this painting, he titled it simply as The Funeral, perhaps as a way of avoiding the work being perceived as partisan. It nonetheless reveals Yeats nationalist sentiments. Yeats once declared, ‘Painting is the freest of the arts…the painter must himself be free and his country must be free’ (quoted in Hilary Pyle, ‘Men of Destiny: Jack B. and W. B Yeats’ in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review). In saying this, as Yeats’ biographer Pyle observed, ‘he was echoing the sentiment expressed by WB in the final lines of his poem Easter 1916. “We know their dream.”'
In the mid-1920s, a profound change in Yeats’ technique occurred. His ‘handling grew much freer, his forms were defined by brushstrokes rather than by line, his colours grew richer and more luminous and his earlier realism gradually gave way to a moody, intimate and highly personal romanticism’ (www.themodel.ie). We see this change clearly in Young Men, painted at the end of the decade in 1929.
In comparing the figures of this work and Early Morning, Glasnevin one can see how they are more loosely rendered and the colour is less literal. There is an increasing sense of pleasure in the plasticity of paint. The setting is O’Connell Bridge, locating the drama in Dublin while the title, Young Men, indicates a sense of the future and conveys an optimistic, positive representation of Irish manhood. It therefore forms a poignant link with Early Morning, Glasnevin, and conveys a favourable nationalist sentiment, more pronounced in the context of the Irish Free State having been formed within the decade. It was exhibited in Dublin and London alongside other significant works by Yeats such as, Going to Wolfe Tone’s Grave (1929, private collection) and Farwell to Mayo (1929, private collection) – the writer James Joyce bought two of Yeats’ works from the same exhibition.
By the 1940s, the increasing stylistic freedom hinted at in Young Men had advanced significantly. The Poetic Morning (1945) and The Tide Receding (1946) from the Collection of the Late Patrick Kelly are energetically rendered with a heavy use of impasto verging on the sculptural in places. Colour begins to take on a rich emotional content, notably in The Poetic Morning which employs warm reds and yellows to reflect the warmth and pleasure of the sunrise.
Both these works locate the central figure within a landscape, which increasingly formed the backdrop against which human drama would unfold in Yeats’ work. In The Poetic Morning the conical peak visible in the background resembles Croagh Patrick in north Mayo and in The Tide Receding, the coastal town may be located in Sligo, harking back to Yeats’ childhood in Sligo, which had a profound influence on his career.
The present painting by Yeats from the collection dates to 1950, when Yeats had fully developed his mature style. Entering his ninth decade, Yeats’ output remarkably increased, and he continued to paint with fervour. By this stage, the paintings had become increasingly subjective and existential, with the subject itself sometimes subsidiary to the rich impasto and dynamic brushwork.
The Showground Revisited exemplifies Yeats’ fully developed and liberated painting technique. The figure is rendered in thick impasto while the arena in which he stands is a myriad of colour. The setting overall remains ambiguous, yet the theme is a favourite of Yeats’ to which he often turned – the travelling fair. It features early in his career, for example in a watercolour, The Old Ring Master from 1909 (private collection).
In the present example, rather than encountering a crowd of people and activity as expected at a circus, the figure is alone. He is, as indicated in the title, revisiting and remembering former glories. There is an autobiographical hint too when considering that three years earlier the artist’s wife of nearly 50 years, Cottie, died, prompting Yeats to reflect on his solitariness and mortality. Such introspection is common in Yeats’ work but he uses personal experiences to also evoke more universal, existential ideas, particularly in his later paintings. Thus, the solitary figure not only alludes to Yeats but also to the viewer, and the need for one to find meaning and purposefulness in life. Such ideas are what prompted Samuel Beckett to observe: “Yeats is with the great of our time... because he brings light, as only the great dare to bring light, to the issueless predicament of existence.” (quoted in Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist).