Art and Ireland: Journeys With Jack Yeats

west of Ireland

The Outsider: that was the name curators chose as they were putting together a major show of the work of artist Jack Yeats in Sligo in Ireland a few years back. That’s one way — a good way — to look at his work. If I had been designing it, though, I’d have called it The Traveler. Jack Yeats was man who used his physical journeys from Dublin to Sligo and around the west of Ireland as stepping off points for journeys of imagination and curiosity which he expressed through drawing and painting.

Have you heard of Jack Yeats? If you are planning or dreaming of a trip to Ireland, you will want to learn about him. Chances are you already know of his brother, William Butler Yeats, poet, politician, playwright, he of the poems about Lake Isle of Innisfree and Dublin 1916. Jack was a poet and writer as well, but his main work was as a painter. In this he was just as distinguished as WB was in his fields. Many consider him Ireland’s most famous painter but unless you grew up in Ireland — perhaps not even then — you may not have heard that much about Jack Yeats.

Jack’s subjects were the vibrant life of Dublin city, the mystical and uncertain world of Irish legend, and the day to day life and the at times mysterious landscapes of the west of Ireland. These are ideas and subjects which held his imagination across a long career; he began drawing as a young boy in the 1870s and continued to paint well into his eighties. His choices and methods of working with these ideas, and perhaps his understanding of them, changed from direct representation to work which drew on techniques of romanticism, to impressionism, to expressionism in varied forms, on to a focus on color and energy. Major changes in style these were, but at the heart of it all remained landscape, legend, and life of Ireland, and especially Ireland’s west.

Sligo, Ireland west of Ireland

Yeats spent much of his growing up in the west, in the Sligo home of his grandparents near Rosses Point. After he’d moved away he often returned to Sligo, Galway, Mayo, and Donegal with his sketch books, creating ideas that he would draw on and explore through his life. Dublin was a sourcebook too, but it was the enduring energy and presence of Sligo that kept fueling his imagination and his work through the decades. Indeed, if you visit the west of Ireland today, you may catch still bits of that mystery in the land and weather, and if you’ve traveled west in Ireland, you may recognize these things in the work of Jack Yeats.

One of his earlier works, Man of Arranmore, catches a hint of individualism and of mystery in a portrait that is both direct and indirect, a quality you’d also find in his Batchelor’s Walk in Memory, painted a decade or more later.

irish painter jack yeats man of arranmore

The Liffey Swim captures the energy of a Dublin sporting event with a style that seems to be heading to a freer use of line and brush stroke, and though color flashes in and out, it holds close to true hues of an Irish winter day, browns and muted shades.

liffey swim jack yeats irish painter

Explorer Rebuffed, painted in 1951 some forty six years on from Man of Arranmore, could almost be the same man, out again on the open road in the west of Ireland. Here, though, he is painted in light and color and gesture, the traveler — or the outsider — defined and shown by spirit more than by detail of clothing or facial expression.

Irish painter Jack yeats

This becomes true of the way Yeats paints landscape as time goes on, too: from the the impressions of solid forms in The Liffey Swim to what becomes a mystical landscape of hues of blues — a landscape, indeed, but one of mystery — in The Open Gate. The open road of imagination takes over as the viewer enters the rider’s viewpoint in For the Road. Forty and fifty years on, subjects drawn from the same well of imagination and story, painted by the same artist, told in very differing ways.
for the road jack yeats irish painter

Yeats belonged to no salon or school of artists, he taught no classes and took no pupils. What he did have was a deep knowledge of Ireland, its people, its landscapes, and its legends, and a willingness to experiment with ways of expressing and translating these things visually. That is one of the reasons his work has endured through ups and downs of acceptance and falling out of favor.

Jack Yeats was a traveler in the world of ideas, in the world of observation, through the world of paint and canvas and color into the world of imagination and myth. After you spend a bit of time in the presence of his work, you may see Ireland, or hear its story, a bit differently because of the encounter.

Was he Ireland’s greatest artist? Well, to my mind the maker of the Ardagh chalice back in the eighth century might have a good claim to that as well, but each can teach you things about Ireland you would not learn otherwise. Give Jack Yeats, especially his later work, a look, and see what you think.

To see the work of Yeats for yourself, The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and The Model Museum in Sligo are good places to begin. As the physical space of the National Gallery in Dublin is undergoing refurbishment at this writing (Update: The refurbishment is done. The online collection is still well worth your time though) you may want to begin with the the National Gallery’s holdings on line. Also, the BBC has put together a slide show which offers a good overview of the work of Jack Yeats.

Had you heard of Jack Yeats or seen his work before? Have you traveled in the west of Ireland? Let us know in the comment section below.

Another thing about Jack Yeats: he is Ireland’s first Olympic medalist. He won a silver medal in art for The Liffey Swim at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

Photographs of the seacoast of Sligo courtesy of the Geograph Ireland Project and photographers Bob Embleton and John M; Man of Arranmore, Liffey Swim and For the Road copyright of the estate of Jack Yeats and courtesy of The National Gallery of Ireland; Explorer Rebuffed copyright of the estate of Jack Yeats and courtesy of Kirklees Museums and Galleries. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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