Dimensions: 26 × 35cm
Medium: Oil on board
Collection: Niland Collection
Provenance: Presented by James A Healy in 1965 (John & Catherine Healy Memorial Collection)
This small oil painting is a preparatory work for John Butler Yeats’s Self-Portrait which he worked on for the last eleven years of his life. It relates to the later and larger Self-Portrait in the Yeats family collection and another version in the National Gallery of Ireland collection, both of which were found in the artist’s studio at the time of his death in 1922. A pencil study for these final oil versions of the Self-Portrait is also in the Niland Collection.
John Butler Yeats travelled with his daughter Lily to New York in 1907 ostensibly for a short visit. After several months Lily returned to Ireland without her father who remained in New York for the rest of his life. Without any regular income the elderly Yeats led a precarious existence and relied on the support and friendship of his admirers in America. John Quinn, the Irish-American lawyer and collector, was undoubtedly the most significant of these. In 1911 he commissioned a Self-Portrait from John B. Yeats and the artist threw himself into the project producing several drawings and oils over the following years.
While the final versions show the artist at his easel in his room at the Petitpas boarding house, this head and shoulders portrait is quite different. Its dramatic composition consists of four quadrants with the head of the artist a fifth and central element. The strong yellow and greens of the upper left section are echoed in the light filled features of the artist who looks directly out of the painting. The gold pin of his necktie breaks up the intense black of the lower half of the composition. The almost abstract qualities of the design reflect Yeats’s exposure to modernist art in New York where he visited the Armory Show in 1913.
Written by Roisin Kennedy
About the Artist
John Butler Yeats (1839 – 1922)
Born 1839, Tullyish, Co. Down, Ireland.
Died 1922, New York, United States.
John Butler Yeats (JBY), father of William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), Jack B. Yeats (1871 – 1957), Susan Mary (Lily) Yeats (1866 -1948), and Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly) Yeats (1868-1940) was born at Tullyish, Co. Down. John was the son of a Church of Ireland rector, the Revd W. B. Yeats. John was educated at a preparatory school in Liverpool and then in the Isle of Man subsequently graduating at the age of twenty -three, with honours and a prize in political economy from Trinity College, Dublin.
In 1862, at the age of twenty -four, he married Susan Pollexfen (1841 – 1900), the daughter of a Sligo ship merchant, whose family originated from Cornwall. Soon after his marriage he began to study for the Irish Bar, to which he was called in 1866, but his efforts to earn a living in this field proved difficult and he abandoned law to become a professional painter instead. To this end, Yeats set out for London, enrolling at Heatherley’s Art School.
From 1868, onwards he moved backwards and forwards between England and Ireland devoting more and more of his time to portraiture and setting out to capture everyone who interested him, particularly the leading political figures, writers and talkers of the day.
He exhibited regularly at the RHA and helped stage an exhibition of Whistler’s work at the Dublin Sketching Club in 1884. He was elected a member of the RHA in 1892. In 1901, the RHA rejected his work but his luck turned when Sarah Purser organised a joint retrospective exhibition of paintings by Nathaniel Hone and himself in the same year. For Yeats it was a pivotal moment. Hugh Lane saw his forty-four pictures on display and commissioned the artist to paint a series of portraits of significant figures in Irish cultural life.
John Butler Yeats travelled with his daughter Lily to New York in 1907 ostensibly for a short visit. After several months Lily returned to Ireland without her father who remained in New York for the rest of his life. Without any regular income the elderly Yeats led a precarious existence and relied on the support and friendship of his admirers in America. John Quinn, the Irish-American lawyer and collector, was undoubtedly the most significant of these.
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