John B. Yeats (JBY) died on 3 February 1922 while living at his studio and apartment in New York. In honour of his life and anniversary, The Model has curated an exhibition of the artist’s pencil sketches and oil paintings. JBY was a renowned artist and the father of four remarkably talented children. Though he began his career in law, JBY found his passion in painting, and soon devoted himself full-time to his craft. He considered this painting, ‘Self-Portrait, New York’ to be his personal masterpiece, and it reveals an interesting story about the artist and the autumn of his life.
John B. Yeats (1839-1922). Self Portrait, New York, 1911-22, oil on canvas 152.5×101.5cm. On loan from a private collector.
At the age of 68, JBY joined his daughter Lily on a trip to New York where she was exhibiting her work. They arrived on 29 December 1907 and stayed initially with a wealthy Irish-American friend John Quinn. Quinn was a successful lawyer and an avid patron of the arts who built an impressive collection, some of which was later donated to The Niland Collection.
JBY became truly enamoured with New York City, so much so that he refused to return home to Dublin with Lily, instead choosing to live out the rest of his life in NYC. In a letter to his daughter Lolly, he wrote, ‘I am convinced that fortune awaits me here,’ and in the fourteen years that followed, John remained an enthusiastic resident of NY, though fortune sadly eluded him.
In order to support JBY with an income, Quinn commissioned this self-portrait in early 1911. The painting was to become a work-in-progress that occupied the artist until his death in 1922. In 1919 JBY wrote to John Quinn: ‘It is like watching a blessed ghost of a long lost beloved slowly materialising. I think of nothing else and I dream of it’. JBY depicts himself in the act of painting while situated in the small bedroom that also served as his studio. JBY had found a greater expressionistic manner in New York, his style became looser and his application of colour took on a more dynamic energy. Yeats’ obsession with the portrait is indicated by its heavily worked surface and its multiple layers of densely applied paint. For JBY, the painting was the fulfilment of his artistic career.
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