The Oil Paintings of Jack B. Yeats : Development from Form to Colour
By James Rodgers
Jack Yeats was born in London, but until 1887, grew up mainly with his grandparents in Sligo, Ireland. He began to draw from an early age and gained most of his art training through apprenticeships in illustration for magazines and journals. Upon moving to Devon, England, in 1897, he began to produce more in watercolour. An example of this can be seen in The Man from Aranmore (1905), a watercolour which is set in the largest of the three Aran Islands, and depicts a man from there. He stands on a dock, dressed in rustic clothing with a simple light palette. The background is framed by a mountain made up of a haze of violet blue and the beige of the sea, similar in tone to the clothing of the man. Separating him from this is the quay, which diverges flatly to the left of the composition, grounding the man in his existence. His right leg is stretched out while he looks off into the distance, standing casually as if waiting for somebody.
The style and subject matter of his watercolours govern Yeats’s early oil paintings; the first of which was done in 1906. In 1910, he moved back to Ireland permanently, to Greystones, Co. Wicklow. There he was mainly interested in depicting the lives of ordinary Irish people. This is evident in the book Irishmen All by George A. Birmingham. Published in 1913, it was a fictional book that described 12 ‘Irish types’ – politicians, priests, etc. and contained 12 illustrations by Yeats which were first painted in oil and subsequently exhibited by themselves. These illustrations demonstrate his desire to record and capture the essence of the Irish people at that time, and each character has a unique temperament. He was also motivated, in some part, by the political fervour and nationalism that would eventually lead to the Irish Free State in 1922 and the effects of the violence during the resistance against Home Rule, though Yeats would never depict the violence directly. Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory (1915) displays the immediate aftermath of the killing of unarmed civilians by troops from the King’s Own Scottish Border. In 1914, the soldiers were dispatched to intercept a group of Dublin Volunteers bringing a supply of arms from Howth. On the way there, civilians accosted them and became hostile; subsequently they opened fire, killing three and wounding thirty.
Yeats depicts a flower girl placing roses along a building, symbols of remembrance for those who died in the massacre. The artist himself visited the scene of the event after it happened and was inspired and touched by the roses put around Bachelor’s Walk; the street that runs by the Liffey River near O’Connell Bridge. At once poignant and convincing in its emotion; we see a barefoot child to the left pausing and staring past the picture plane, lost in thought and confused. The composition itself is structured and clear. Both the sidewalk and the buildings to the left curve in a clear line behind the building, which obstructs our view. It seems that the focus is on the action itself, with the woman at the centre of the composition, placing another rose on the ledge of a building. In a work such as this, Yeats focuses more on what he saw and depicting truthfully the reality of life in Ireland.
As time went on he shed the structured approach to painting that was so much like his watercolours and began to free his technique; painting consistently in oil. He moved to Dublin in 1917 and depicted urban life in the Irish Free State after the Anglo-Irish treaty, and his work becomes confident and free; combining his inner subjective view with public life. The Liffey Swim (1923) is a well-known work, recording the swimming race that took place once a year in the Liffey River. It is filled with energy and variety, but highly abstract, compared to his earlier works. The swimmers in the river are simply strokes of paint that are drawn contrary to the rush of the river, itself excited with deep tones of rust red and green in addition to the deep blue. Unlike previous paintings, there are no depictions of faces, as Yeats is trying to bring across the feeling of the event. To this extent, there are multiple planes of recession: a division between the forefront spectators, the river, and the other side of the bridge, combined with the recession of the river in the background. While showing a freer expression and greater disposition towards abstract concepts, Yeats nevertheless still develops spatial recession and maintains focus on form; similar to previous techniques.
A final break from his previous style occurred in the oil paintings towards the end of Yeats’s career, where he decided that he could express himself best by squeezing oils directly on to the canvas and using a palette knife rather than a brush. In these works, he replaces form for colour and uses a thick impasto technique to depict the subjects. This advanced technique can be seen in Men of Destiny (1946). Because of the bright colours, it takes some effort to make out what the subject is at first. But by looking at the direction of the paint, we can discern three men that are formed by vertical swaths of colour which are identical to the colours of the landscape. The men have just docked at some harbour, a memory from when Yeats was younger. But here we are presented with a subjective landscape – Yeats is not trying to show us reality; but an idealised, subjective vision of his own mind. It does not portray a particular event but an idea; these ordinary men have a significant role in the future of the nation.
In an interview with Eamonn Andrews in 1947, Yeats stated: “You could not understand all of any painting of mine, any more than you could understand the feelings of any living being”. This assertion describes the late works perfectly. They are as elusive as the essence of living beings and the freest of any action that a person can undertake. In this way the career of Yeats progressed, from an art focussed on form and the depiction of events, to an expressive style bathed in colour and seeming formlessness and freedom of convention.
Birmingham, George A. Irishmen All. London: T.N. Foulis, 1914.
Kennedy, Brian P. "The Oil Painting Technique of Jack B Yeats." Irish Arts Review Yearbook 9 (1993): 115-23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20492721.
Pyle, Hilary. Jack B. Yeats in The National Gallery of Ireland. Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 1986.
Rosenthal, T.G. The Art of Jack B. Yeats. London: Andre Deutsche, 1993.
Yeats, Jack B. “Jack B. Yeats The Art of Living”. Interview by Eamonn Andrews.RTE Radio,10 October 1947.https://www.rte.ie/archives/2017/0327/862896-painter-jack-b-yeats/