John Butler Yeats arrived in New York aboard the Campania with his daughter Lily on 29 December 1907, at the age of sixty-eight. Earlier that year, Lily had been invited to display Dun Emer’s wares in the city and JBY, as was characteristic, made an impulsive decision to join her. John Quinn, a first generation Irish-American who had taken an active role in contemporary Irish culture and politics, and had therefore found himself closely involved with the Yeats family in Dublin, took JBY and Lily under his wing on their arrival.
JBY was excited from the off, and as before in London and in Dublin, he believed in New York great opportunities and business lay ahead: ‘I am convinced that fortune awaits me here’ he wrote to his daughter Lolly. By May of the new year, it was time for Lily and JBY to return to Dublin, yet Lily was well aware her father's reluctance to leave. She booked two tickets for their return voyage in the hope he would succumb to the pressure. However, he did not give in and in the end, Lily returned to Dublin alone.
In New York, JBY never tired of the city and in the fourteen years until his death, was an enthusiastic resident. He was to meet virtually every Irish-American of importance in the city, and became chiefly known not for his painting but for his speaking, lecturing regularly and in turn being sought by every thinking creative Irishman or woman who visited New York. He took up residence at a boarding house on 317 West Twenty-ninth Street, run by three Breton sisters called Petitpas, ‘a stranger among strangers’ he remarked. He entered a world of fellow bohemian writers and artists, men such as John Sloan, Robert Henri, Van Wyck Brooks, Alan Seeger and Conrad Aiken (depicted in fig. 1 with JBY at the head of the table). There he regularly held court - Sloan regarded the old painter as philosopher-king.
It was in February 1911 that Quinn – an avid patron of the arts – commissioned JBY to paint the present self-portrait. It led to numerous pencil studies (see lots 2 and 63) as he prepared and worked on the painting. Although it began in 1911, it occupied the artist until his death, becoming an obsession for him. In 1919 he wrote to Quinn: 'It is like watching a blessed ghost of a long lost beloved slowly materialising. I think of nothing else and I dream of it' (quoted in James White, op. cit., p.27).
The artist depicts himself in the act of painting situated within his small bedroom, which also served as his studio, at the Petitpas boarding house. A friend and visitor Mary Colum, wife of the Irish poet and novelist Padraig Colum, described in her autobiography the iron bed and cheap worn rug in his lodgings, and the easel on which was 'always erected a portrait at which he tinkered day after day' (quoted in Hilary Pyle, op. cit, p.150). JBY had found a greater expressionistic manner in New York and his colour took on a more vigorous energy, which we see in the present work. It is even tempting to see in it an anticipation of his son Jack B. Yeats’ boldly expressionist paintings that were to follow. His preoccupation with the portrait accounts for its heavily worked surface and its multiple layers of densely applied paint. Yet the result of his constant restlessness, as Pyle observes, is that 'the final great oil portrait...preserves what he passionately desired, the quality of the sketch' (H. Pyle, op. cit., p.5).
For JBY, the painting was the fulfillment of his artistic career. In his preface to Early Memories, W.B. Yeats wrote how his father in his letters, 'constantly spoke about this picture [the present lot] as his masterpiece, insisted again and again... that he had found what he had been seeking all his life. This growing skill had been his chief argument against return to Ireland, for the portrait that displayed it must not be endangered by a change of light'.
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