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 Jack Butler Yeats  (1871 - 1957)

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Lived/Active: Ireland      Known for: landscape, illustration, Irish genre painting

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A Fair Day, Mayo
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Jack B. Yeats  (1871-1957)

Yeats was born August 29, 1871 in London, England to John Butler Yeats and Susan Pollexfen Yeats. The family had two homes, one in London and the other Dublin, because his mother’s parents lived in Sligo.  Yeats’ father pursed a career in law, and then in 1867 halted his legal work to become an artist.  John Yeats’ early family sketches and portraits document this difficult time in the family life and changes in his wife, Susan.  The portrait skill of father, John Yeats, is undeniable as documented by the portrait of his young son Jack B. Yeats.  After eight years of marriage and shortly after Jack’s birth, his mother, with her children in tow, moved to Sligo, Ireland to live with her parents (William and Elizabeth Pollexfen).  John and Susan’s union was a disaster with fundamental differences not limited to finances.  Therefore, it is not surprising Jack’s grandfather William Pollexfen became a dynamic force in the artist’s life.  One common thread within the family was the creative genius of all the siblings.  The other was the foundation of middle class values and virtues.

One of the important images used throughout Yeats' creative life are horses.  Some of the memories were created by two uncles George and Frederick Pollexfen, who owned race horses, using their colors primrose & violet and primrose & blue, respectively.  The family wore the race colors in the flowers of primrose, violets or forget-me-nots.  The race courses were Hazelwood and Bowmore Strand.  The family maids and servants captivated the young artist and his siblings with stories of fairies, angels, saints, and banshees.  The family coachman, Scanlon kept order in the outdoor life at the stable yard directly below the artist’s nursery window.  The artist’s father wrote of Jack, “as soon as he left his nurse's arms, he began to draw and has continued to draw ever since.”

The childhood influences in Sligo lasted until 1888 when the remaining family moved back to Bedford Park.  In April of 1888 he received his first drawing order for the publication The Vegetarian with a Fairies illustration.  This one publication was his primary source of income until 1895.  Yeats attended various art schools including: South Kensington, fall of 1887, Chiswick School of Art, Bedford Park in 1888, West London School of Art from 1890-1893 and Westminster school in London from 1890-1894.  Here he studied drawing, watercolor and illustration.  The first year of his exhibits began in 1890 in one man shows of watercolors and drawings in London.

The artist’s diary date of September 1888 exhibits drawings and sketches from a holiday in Sligo, documenting this good time at Bowmore Strand and his first images of the jockey, Muldoon.  When sketching and illustrating projects were not occupying his time, he read books.  The lifelong favorites were Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and authors Bret Harte, Rider Haggard, and Charles Lever.

Mary “Cottie” Cottenham White and the artist met in April 1889 and were married August 23, 1894.  Cottie Yeats was an artist in watercolor and gouache, a student of Chiswick School of Art.  Her style was decorative techniques, design and a later illustrative contributor to the Cuala Press. Yeats created his first cartoon strip of Sherlock Holmes in 1894. In fall of 1895 the couple purchased land on the Gara River, a remote countryside with rolling hills, tilled red soil, and green fields for cattle.

Then in 1896 the couple traveled to Sligo, Ireland to meet the Pollexfen side of the family.  This was an exciting year: Cottie liked Sligo and the Pollexfen family, the couple contracted to build a home in Devonshire and Yeats’ first one man show in the London Haymarket at Clifford Gallery fall of 1897 was booked.  During his lifetime, Yeats exhibited in 60 one-man shows.  The artist created in watercolor and pencil for the exhibition scenes of Devonshire with the show highlight being Waiting.  The technique changes in Yeats' work and the new psychological impact of watercolors occurred during this one year and their move from Surrey to Devonshire.

Yeats sketchbook drawing in watercolor of 1897 shows a new perspective of his beloved yellow mongrel dog, Hooligan looking down the lane for happenings. Then in 1898 the couple traveled throughout Ireland.  His fresh perspective inspired by all his senses, to nothing-but everything Ireland.  Ireland, its country, its people, its life, events, races, markets, ships, boats, sea, hurling, football, city and country, circus, fairs, carousels, the farms, farm animals, roof and fence mending, musicians, donkeys, politicians, Father Brady, and the events of patriotism filled his sketchbooks.

In 1898 the couple visited Italy and attended the “1798 Centenary Celebration in Carrignagat.”  The following year, 1899, he exhibited for the first time in Dublin.  This began his regular submissions to annual Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in Dublin.

 
The following published information is in opposition and noted here:

The first documented year of his work in oil was 1897 by Victor Waddington in the 1967 Exhibition Catalog.  The earliest documented painting in oil was in 1902 as documented by the catalog for Jack B. Yeats 1871-1957 A Centenary Exhibition, 1971.
 
Victor Waddington stated there were various one man shows of the artist watercolors from 1890-1900, but the earliest exhibition documented again by the catalog for Jack B. Yeats 1871-1957 A Centenary Exhibition, 1971 was in 1897.
 
Victor Waddington states that 1895 was the first year Yeats exhibited in Dublin in the 1967 Exhibition Catalog.  The earliest exhibition date in the catalog for Jack B. Yeats 1871-1957 A Centenary Exhibition, 1971 documents 1899 as the first time in Dublin.
 
The artist’s early works in oil were palette knife with the pigment directly applied to the canvas from the tube.  These were lyrical depictions of simple landscapes, figures, and seascapes predominantly from Sligo and the west of Ireland.  Yeats’ keen observation and illustrating skills reflected the elements of sentiment, impression, and the force of nature in his work.  The artist palette was bright and clear.  The artist moved from the simple illustrations based upon memories of Sligo, people and landscapes of the late 1920s into expressionism and clearly into symbolism in his later years.  After the death of his wife, Yeats’ style became more symbolic with religious undertones.  The artist clearly depicted universal themes loneliness, man’s plight, life and death.  As the artist made transitions in his life and career, the pigment colors remained clear and bright.

The following years are noted exhibitions during the artist’s lifetime: 1904 America, the Clausen Gallery, 1912 Paris, Salon des Independents, 1913 New York City,  New York, Armory, 1913-1926 many group & one man shows in London and Dublin, 1926 Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, 1942 London, joint exhibition with William Nicholson at the National Gallery, 1946 one man Wildenstein, London, 1948  Retrospective Temple Newsam, Leeds-taken over by the Arts Council for Tate Gallery, London, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, 1951-1952 Institute of Contemporary Art Retrospective in Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Colorado, Toronto, Detroit and New York, 1954 first solo in Paris.

From his early days he did not want his sketches or studies exhibited and refused anyone permission to make reproductions of any kind of his work.  There is no doubt with photography, his expressionist, palette knife technique, imagery and the dimension of his work was lost.  Possibly concerned the printer would not make it look right, but most likely he did not want to lose credit for his creation.  This did not keep the artist from being recognized on a global scale for his expressionism.  His art is located in private and public collections throughout the world.  The credit for some of his success includes family and friends, but Victor Waddington was a continual promoter of the artist and all Irish artists’ work of this era.  Waddington and his Irish Gallery brought to the world a fresh new look of Ireland and its creative community. 

The Cuala Press was established in 1902 by Elizabeth “Lolly” and Susan “Lily” Yeats, the artist’s siblings.  It was originally called the Dun Emer Press published monthly in Churchtown, Dundrum County, Ireland.  The two sisters broke off from Dun Emer Press-taking the embroidery and press part of the business.  The Broadside was published beginning in June 1908, subscription size 300 the last year published was 1915.  The publication represented writers associated with the Irish Literary Revival with populist political dynamics.  The publication was managed, run and staffed by women.  The focus was modern writings of Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, John Masefield, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde, John Synge, Oliver St. John Gogarty and did not publish the classics.  The artist, Jack B. Yeats, illustrated articles for the publication.  These illustrations were produced in a subscription size of 300.  The illustrations were hand colored by the women of Cuala Press, not Jack B. Yeats.
 
There are numerous opinions about whether the artist supported himself and his family with his paintings, illustrations, comic cartoons, drawings and watercolors.  It is documented he worked extremely hard to save enough for his home and marriage to Cottie.  It is also documented Cottie had a trust, however large is unknown because at her death the trust reverted because of no children.  Yeats loved children and illustrated books specifically for children.  Children loved the theatrical and dramatic puppet shows he created.  Yeats the artist was an author of seven novels and nine plays.

Yeats was a Governor and Guardian of the National Gallery of Ireland.  He assisted with his knowledge and expertise for many years.  He served with many Governors of the National Gallery of Ireland until retirement. The National Gallery Archives hold all Yeats sketchbooks and diaries along with other personal items donated by the artist and his family.

In 1916 he was elected to the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA).  At the Tailteann Games in 1924 Yeats won the art medal for painting.  Held in Dublin’s, Croke Park sponsored by the Gaelic Athletic Association.  The competition was open to persons of Irish birth or ancestry.  (Today noted for football and hurling) Yeats life was diversified with interests other than the creative process and his art.  He was interested in sports, enjoyed the Dublin University Boat Club, belonged to the House and Garden Committee and was active, enjoying the circus, dancing, music, theater, juried art exhibits, and college committees.  These varied interests provided him with opportunities to observe many activities and bring them to life on canvas or paper.  At a boat race, Alan Browne recalled, Yeats pointing to the bank at one crew stating, that crew will win, they are wearing primary colors and pure colors cut through the air quicker.  He was right. Yeats maintained a daily walk and had many friends all over the city.

In 1945 Yeats and his wife celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Two years later, Cottie had a series of stokes and was moved to Portobello Nursing Home, February 17, 1947.  Yeats visited her every day reading cards, notes and letters to her.  Daily she grew weaker, slept more, but was at peace with no pain.  Yeats could not return to their home after her death, so he remained at the Portobello.  The year of Cottie’s death, Yeats created 70 paintings including large 24”x 36” canvases.  Then in 1948 his production increased to 80 paintings.  Was he creating to occupy time because he missed her or was his creativity released because she was no longer ill?  Many of his friends and family visited him and increased their time spent with him.  He continued his daily walks greeting friends and visiting along the way.

Then 1950, the artist became a member of the French Legion d’Honneur and a photograph shows the personal pride he felt in the recognition while wearing the medal.  The artist received few awards in his lifetime.  The artist was quoted as stating “I only want to be remembered as a painter.”

Yeats lived the later years of his life in Dublin.  He wrote humorously in letters to friends about his room calling it “Cell 27” at Portobello Nursing Home.

Yeats, the painter will be remembered, as he created from memories of events seen or imaged in the present.  The artist's work is historic, based upon past memories and modern/contemporary, bringing the images into the present as it relates to modern man.  There is a joyful quality, free from any stylized artistic movement or classical technique taught by art academics.  The expression of truth, simplicity, and child like innocence are the impressions left by Jack B. Yeats.  When asked about a picture and what it meant, Yeats would not offer any explanation. 

The artist left this world peacefully with a loving family member holding his hand on March 28, 1957 in Dublin, Ireland.  Since his death, the painter's work has been exhibited in the past 51 years throughout the world.  The interest in Jack B. Yeats continues with more people studying his work.  The following have researched and published books about Yeats. Hilary Pyle and T. G. Rosenthal published several catalog raisonne of his work for paintings and works on paper.  Bruce Arnold published a detailed, well documented biography of Jack B. Yeats in 1998.  Villanova University has the most complete library of the Cuala Press publications and The Broadsides on-line for review.  Jack B. Yeats is remembered “as a painter”.

Copyright December 2008 Janet G. Smith
Submitted to www.askart.com by Janet G. Smith, ISA. Member of the International Society of Appraisers

References:
Arnold, Bruce. Jack Yeats, Yale University Press, 1998, New Haven, CT.
Rosenthal, T.G. 1993. The Art of Jack B. Yeats, 1993, Carlton Books
Waddington, Victor. Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957) Oil paintings 28 September – 21 October 1967, Early Drawings and Watercolours, 26 October – 18 November 1967, Exhibition Catalogue, 1967, London.
National Gallery of Ireland. Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957) A Centenary Exhibition, Exhibition Catalog, 1971, Jarrod & Sons, LTD. Norwich, UK.
Lynch, Patricia. The Turf Cutters Donkey, E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc. 1935, New York City, NY.

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