Jack Butler Yeats, R.H.A.
- Jack Butler Yeats, R.H.A.
- Sleep Sound
- titled on the stretcher bar
- oil on canvas
Eleanor de Bretteville Reid, San Francisco
Her sale, Sotheby's London, 24th November 1993, lot 88, where acquired by David Bowie
That have found it where you fed.
What were all the world's alarms
To mighty Paris when he found
Sleep upon a golden bed
That first dawn in Helen's arms?
Sleep, beloved, such a sleep
As did that wild Tristram know
When, the potion's work being done,
Roe could run or doe could leap
Under oak and beechen bough,
Roe could leap or doe could run;
Such a sleep and sound as fell
Upon Eurotas' grassy bank
When the holy bird, that there
Accomplished his predestined will,
From the limbs of Leda sank
But not from her protecting care.
W. B. Yeats, Lullaby, 1931
Jack Butler Yeats’ immense contribution to Irish art in the 20th century parallels that of his brother’s, William Butler Yeats, to Irish literature. Like William, Jack developed an individual approach to his art that had strong Irish roots yet also spoke universally. The Yeats brothers formed part of an extraordinarily creative family. Their father, John Butler Yeats, was one of the foremost portrait painters of his generation and their sisters, Susan and Elizabeth, founded an arts and crafts co-operative for women. Each were at the forefront of their fields and together the family hold a central place within 20th century Irish culture.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Jack’s artistic career is its independent spirit. He did not belong to any schools or establish close working relationships with other artists. His search for a visual language was his own, and it led to a highly energised, bold and expressionist technique with few parallels.
Whether Jack was directly referencing his brother’s poem, Lullaby, one cannot be certain but it shares similar sentiments, depicting two figures lying on a moor beneath a heavy sky. Painted two years before his death, it was one of the artist’s last three paintings he produced when a heightened sense of his own mortality - and a desire for a deep and peaceful sleep – may have informed the present work and resonated with W. B. Yeats’ poem.
Jack’s creative output accelerated with astonishing fervour in the last decade of his life. It became the most productive period of his career and led to some of his most celebrated paintings. At this stage, his artistic language was fully developed, exemplified in Sleep Sound. Paint is applied heavily and energetically with brush and palette knife, often directly from the tubes onto canvas, unmixed. Colour has no formal limitations and the composition as a whole borders on the abstract, with sky, land and figures merging into one and stimulating the eye to dart across the surface. It is daring, poetic and introspective, and demonstrates why he holds a defining place in Irish art.
It is typical of Bowie’s connection with ‘outsider’ art that he should purchase the present work - being by an inventive and singular artist whose recognition still deserves to be wider. As that other giant of 20th century Irish literature, Samuel Beckett, put it: ‘Yeats is with the greats of our time, Kandinsky and Klee, Bellmer and Bram van Velde, Rouault and Braque, 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, London, 1996, p.141).