Jack Butler Yeats

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Jack Butler Yeats
Jack Butler Yeats.jpg
Yeats in 1904
Born(1871-08-29)29 August 1871
London, England
Died28 March 1957(1957-03-28) (aged 85)
Dublin, Ireland
Known forPainting
RelativesW. B. Yeats (brother)
Lily Yeats (sister)
Elizabeth Yeats (sister)
Olympic medal record
Art competitions
Silver medal – second place 1924 Paris Painting

Jack Butler Yeats RHA (29 August 1871 – 28 March 1957) was an Irish artist and Olympic medalist. W. B. Yeats was his brother.[1]

Butler's early style was that of an illustrator; he only began to work regularly in oils in 1906.[2] His early pictures are simple lyrical depictions of landscapes and figures, predominantly from the west of Ireland—especially of his boyhood home of Sligo. Yeats's work contains elements of Romanticism. He later would adopt the style of Expressionism.


Yeats was born in London, England. He was the youngest son of Irish portraitist John Butler Yeats and the brother of W. B. Yeats, who received the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature. He grew up in Sligo with his maternal grandparents, before returning to his parents' home in London in 1887.[3]

Yeats attended the Chiswick School of Art with his sisters Elizabeth and Susan,[4] learning "Freehand drawing in all its branches, practical Geometry and perspective, pottery and tile painting, design for decorative purposes – as in Wall-papers, Furniture, Metalwork, Stained Glass".[5]

Early in his career, Yeats worked as an illustrator for magazines like the Boy's Own Paper and Judy, drew comic strips, including the Sherlock Holmes parody "Chubb-Lock Homes" for Comic Cuts, and wrote articles for Punch under the pseudonym "W. Bird".[3][6] In 1894 he married Mary Cottenham, also a native of England and two years his senior, and resided in Wicklow according to the Census of Ireland, 1911.

From around 1920, he developed into an intensely Expressionist artist, moving from illustration to Symbolism. He was sympathetic to the Irish Republican cause, but not politically active. However, he believed that 'a painter must be part of the land and of the life he paints', and his own artistic development, as a Modernist and Expressionist, helped articulate a modern Dublin of the 20th century, partly by depicting specifically Irish subjects, but also by doing so in the light of universal themes such as the loneliness of the individual, and the universality of the plight of man. Samuel Beckett wrote that "Yeats is with the great of our time... because he brings light, as only the great dare to bring light, to the issueless predicament of existence."[7] The Marxist art critic and author John Berger also paid tribute to Yeats from a very different perspective, praising the artist as a "great painter" with a "sense of the future, an awareness of the possibility of a world other than the one we know".[8]

His favourite subjects included the Irish landscape, horses, circus and travelling players. His early paintings and drawings are distinguished by an energetic simplicity of line and colour, his later paintings by an extremely vigorous and experimental treatment of often thickly applied paint. He frequently abandoned the brush altogether, applying paint in a variety of different ways, and was deeply interested in the expressive power of colour. Despite his position as the most important Irish artist of the 20th century (and the first to sell for over £1m), he took no pupils and allowed no one to watch him work, so he remains a unique figure. The artist closest to him in style is his friend, the Austrian painter, Oskar Kokoschka.

In 1943 he accepted Victor Waddington as his sole dealer and business manager. Waddington played a crucial role in his career and reputation.[9]

Besides painting, Yeats had a significant interest in theatre and in literature. He was a close friend of Samuel Beckett. He designed sets for the Abbey Theatre, and three of his own plays were also produced there. His literary works include The Careless Flower, The Amaranthers (much admired by Beckett), Ah Well, A Romance in Perpetuity, And To You Also, and The Charmed Life. Yeats's paintings usually bear poetic and evocative titles. He was elected a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1916.[10] He died in Dublin in 1957, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery.

Yeats holds the distinction of being Ireland's first medalist at the Olympic Games in the wake of creation of the Irish Free State. At the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, Yeats' painting The Liffey Swim won a silver medal in the arts and culture segment of the Games.[11] In the competition records the painting is simply entitled Swimming.[12][13]


In November 2010, one of Yeats's works, A Horseman Enters a Town at Night, painted in 1948 and previously owned by novelist Graham Greene, sold for nearly £350,000 at a Christie's auction in London. A smaller work, Man in a Room Thinking, painted in 1947, sold for £66,000 at the same auction. His painting Sleep Sound (1955) was bought by David Bowie in 1993 for £45,500 and sold at auction in 2016 for £233,000.[14][15] In 1999 the painting, The Wild Ones, had sold at Sotheby's in London for over £1.2m.[16] Whyte's Auctioneers hold the world record sale price for a Yeats painting, Reverie (1931), which sold for €1,400,000 in November 2019.[17]

The Model, Home of The Niland Collection, in Sligo cares for one of the best and most extensive collections of Jack B. Yeats work in existence. It presents regular curated exhibitions of his work, notably, The Outside in 2011, Enter the Clowns - The Circus as Metaphor, 2013; The Music has Come, 2014; Painted Universe, 2018; Salt Water Ballads, 2021.

Hosting museums[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jack Butler Yeats". Olympedia. Retrieved 23 July 2020.
  2. ^ Pyle, 106
  3. ^ a b "History of British Comics: 1890 - 1899 (Early Comics) Part 2". Archived from the original on 9 August 2020. Retrieved 6 November 2010.
  4. ^ 1881 – Chiswick School of Art, Bedford Park, London, Archiseek, 26 August 2009, accessed 11 August 2022
  5. ^ 1881 – Chiswick School of Art, Bedford Park, London, Archiseek, 26 August 2009, accessed 11 August 2022
  6. ^ "Jack Yeats". lambiek.net.
  7. ^ Brennan, Séamus. "The Work of Jack B. Yeats Archived 7 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine". Speech at the National Gallery of Ireland, 17 July 2007. Retrieved on 1 July 2009.
  8. ^ Berger, John. Permanent Red. Methuen, 1960 repr. Writers & Artists Collective, 1979. 148. ISBN 0904613-92-5
  9. ^ Clavin, Terry. "Victor Waddington". www.dib.ie. Royal Irish Academy. Retrieved 20 December 2021.
  10. ^ W. J. Gillan & McCormack, Patrick. The Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture. WileyBlackwell, 2001. 624. ISBN 0-631-22817-9
  11. ^ "Jack Butler Yeats | Irish painter". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 9 August 2021.
  12. ^ p.318, McCarthy, Kevin Gold Silver And Green: The Irish Olympic Journey 1896-1924 Cork: Cork University Press 2010
  13. ^ Mike, Cronin. "The State on Display: The 1924 Tailteann Art Competition". New Hibernia Review. Volume 9, Number 3, Autumn 2005. 50-71
  14. ^ "Jack B Yeats painting owned by David Bowie to be auctioned". The Irish Times. Retrieved 10 August 2022.
  15. ^ Vallig, Marc O’Sullivan (20 October 2021). "Jack B Yeats: Celebrated artist, brother of WB, and Ireland's first Olympic medallist". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 10 August 2022.
  16. ^ "Jack B Yeats paintings net £415,300 at auction". BBC Northern Ireland News (12 November 2010). 12 November 2010. Retrieved 14 November 2010.
  17. ^ "Jack Butler Yeats painting makes €1.7m in 'white glove sale'". 29 September 2011. Retrieved 4 August 2018.


  • Samuel Beckett. 1991. Jack B. Yeats: The Late Paintings (Whitechapel Art Gallery)
  • John Booth. 1993. Jack B. Yeats: A Vision of Ireland (House of Lochar)
  • John W. Purser. 1991. The Literary Universe of Jack B. Yeats (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers)
  • Hilary Pyle. 1987. Jack B. Yeats in the National Gallery of Ireland (National Gallery of Ireland)
  • Hilary Pyle. 1989. Jack B. Yeats: A Biography (Carlton Books)
  • T.G. Rosenthal. 1993. The Art of Jack B. Yeats (Carlton Books)
  • Jack B. Yeats. 1992. Selected Writings of Jack B. Yeats (Carlton Books)
  • Declan J Foley (2009), ed. with an introduction by Bruce Stewart,The Only Art of Jack B. Yeats Letters and essays (Lilliput Press Dublin).

External links[edit]