‘Form almost disappears under the passion for life and movement expressed by thick oil paint slashed on the canvas with brush and palette knife. The result is at first glance disconcertingly chaotic and restless. But Yeats, like Van Gogh, whose passionate temper he shares, somehow has these runaway canvases under an inner control. Out of the rush and speed of form and colour emerges the thing he wants.’
(Apollo Magazine, Jack B. Yeats exhibition review, Tate Gallery, 1948)
This densely painted work depicts a crowd of people walking in a glade of trees on a warm evening. The title and the subject matter recall George Seurat’s masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon at La Grande Jatte, a forensic exploration of modern leisure. In Yeats’s painting, however, the formality of Seurat’s work is replaced by intimacy, with the gestures and poses of the figures evoking empathy and companionship. Its pastoral mode in which people intermingle in an atmospheric and pleasurable setting is more reminiscent of the work of the French Rococo painter, Antoine Watteau. Samuel Beckett noted the comparison between the two artists when he referred to Yeats’s work as becoming ‘Watteauer and Watteauer’. For, Thomas MacGreevy, who quoted Beckett, ‘the human beings represented in the work of the two painters are equals in that they are artists in living’ (Thomas MacGreevy, Jack B. Yeats - An Appreciation and an Interpretation, Dublin, 1945, p.15). Hilary Pyle has compared their characterisation and the tranquil mood to an excerpt from Yeats’s 1944 novel, And to You Also. The extract refers to a gathering of acquaintances in St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin. The park is described as ‘a blue, grey and green pleasure ground, woody, in the middle of the city.’ The narrator notices, as he strolls with his friends, ‘a few paces from us, pacing in time to our thoughts, and they are weaving about in a Malton print, a couple, an old blade, gay but droopy. While leaning on his arm is a stately young woman still in the mind of the Eighteenth Century. There are other people in the half-light…’ (quoted in Hilary Pyle, op. cit., p.875).
Figures coming and going, chance encounters and fleeting conversations are central motifs in Yeats’s later paintings and writings. Such events build up the notion of life as being based on random and coincidental incidents that may have sinister or more usually humorous consequences. Intertwined with memories of past meetings, such interactions enforce the collective and arbitrary nature of individual experience, drawn as it is from both private thoughts and public communication with others. As Robin Skelton has observed, in Yeats’s work, ‘Human intentions are pointless: we are prisoners of a will greater than our own: we can only, if we are wise, accept what life brings us and live as much by chance as by choice’ (Robin Skelton, ed. The Selected Writings of Jack B. Yeats, André Deutsch, 1991, p.13).
In Sunday Evening in September several strong personalities are evident. The formally dressed gentleman, [the old blade], to the right of the composition with his hands holding firmly onto his lapels, recalls the wealthy farmers of Yeats’s earlier West of Ireland scenes. His companion, a striking-looking young woman is also reminiscent of some of the female figures of the oils of the 1920s. But as Pyle’s quotation from And to You Also suggests, these are more likely to be Dublin based figures, ghosts or modern versions of the fashionable inhabitants of the city’s Ascendancy past. Other figures recall other contexts. The male figure standing in a striking pose in the centre of the composition appears to be acting in a drama. To the left the bowler hatted old gent and his cap headed companion bring to mind Bowsie and No Matter, nomadic characters from another Yeats’s novel, The Charmed Life (1938). The two are recurring characters in his late paintings.
Light and colour are strongly affected by the canopy of leaves under which the scene takes place. The dappled light and the movement of changing luminosity and shadow across the figures is suggested by the diversity of brushstrokes and textures. The palette of dark greens and blues with subtle touches of pink and yellow and expanses of white create a dynamic and shimmering surface. Several sections of paint are very thickly applied, almost sculpted, creating a three-dimensional surface that brings to the fore the artificiality and mystery of painting itself.
Dr. Róisín Kennedy
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