Jack B. Yeats: Painting & Memory Exhibition

Image Credit: Courtesy of Board of Trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Ulster Museum © Estate of Jack B. Yeats, DACS London, IVARO Dublin, 2021

Rachel Healy discusses the work of Irish artist Jack B. Yeats and the new exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Jack B. Yeats: Painting & Memory, the largest exhibition of Ireland’s most famous painter, Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957), is currently on display at the National Gallery of Ireland. The exhibition displays a collection spanning over 40 years of the artist’s career, with over 80 oil paintings gathered from private and public collections around the globe.

Jack B. Yeats was born 150 years ago in London. His father, John Butler Yeats, was a portraitist, and his older brother was the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. From ages 8 to 16, Jack B. Yeats lived with his grandparents in Co. Sligo. Then, in 1887, Yeats moved back to London with his family, where he would begin his career as an illustrator for magazines. He turned to oil painting in 1906 and returned to live in Ireland in Greystones, Co. Wicklow in 1910.

Yeats’ recognition as an artist was propelled to an international level when he became Ireland’s first Olympic medallist at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, winning a silver medal which he gained for painting, The Liffey Swim. Yeats’ painting The Whistle of a Jacket (1946), also became the first piece of Irish artwork to sell for over £1 million, when it sold for £1.4 million in 2001 in Christie’s Auction House in London.

“When his wife passed away in 1947, the artist’s work became more abstract.”

The artist’s earlier works in the exhibition portray Ireland and it’s people – everyday citizens taking trains and walking through the streets of Dublin, as seen in In the Tram (1923) and Grafton Street / Conversation Piece (1924). Before the Start (1915) and Bachelor's Walk, In Memory (1915) demonstrate the artist’s earlier style which was simple, figurative, representational and included an earthy palette and delineated subjects with broad brushstrokes and a flattened appearance. 

In the later 1920s, there was a dramatic shift in Yeats’ style as his brushstrokes became much looser. His canvases became larger and more colourful, albeit still with identifiable subjects, as seen in Pilot Sligo River (1927). Having lived through the Irish struggle to become a Republic, Yeats began to favour more romantic and nationalist subjects, as represented in his scenes from Irish mythology and moody landscapes in the West of Ireland.

The 1940s were the most active years of Yeats’ life, when he was creating over 100 paintings per year. When his wife passed away in 1947, the artist’s work became more abstract. Paint was applied more vigorously and colour and brushstrokes became more expressive. The artist began to paint with a palette knife and was squeezing oil paint directly onto the canvas, creating texture in the work. Towards the end of the artist’s life, the turbulent Irish landscapes became more prominent in the paintings, with melancholic titles such as, The Dark Path (1950) and That We May Never Meet Again (1954). Roadsters Old and Young (1956), painted a year before Yeats’ death, suggests the artist’s awareness of his own mortality.

The title of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland, Jack B. Yeats: Painting & Memory, refers to the artist’s retrospective outlook and his reflections on life as displayed through his artwork. Yeats’ romantic artwork signified the longing for an Ireland of simpler times. The artist said that every one of his paintings contained a thought of Sligo from his childhood memories and that 'no one creates, the artist assembles memories' . The abstract rendition of Yeats’ subjects mimics the blurred haziness of a memory. While his earlier works display scenes from reality, his mature paintings instead show a suggested impression of memory.

The exhibition will run until 6 February 2022. Student tickets can be purchased online for €11.30 at www.nationalgallery.ie.