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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Jack Butler Yeats

The Wild  Ones, 1947, Jack B. Yeats
One of the things regarding art which never ceases to amaze me is the prices various artists' works bring at auction. I'm not just talking about the astronomical heights to which works by household names often soar (although that's downright dumbfounding most of the time). No I'm talking about lesser known, sometimes almost unknown artists whose works bring at Sotheby's or Christie's in the six-figure range or higher. Unless you happen to be Irish, or better still, live in Ireland, you've probably never heard of Jack B. Yeats. If it helps any, he was the younger brother of W. B. Yeats, who won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature. Their father was the Irish portrait artist, John Butler Yeats. If none of this genealogy rings a bell, that's largely the point I'm making. Jack B. Yeats painting, The Wild Ones (above), dating from 1947, recently sold at Sotheby's for £1,233,500 ($1.77-million), a record for this artist.
A Fair Day, County Mayo, 1925 .Jack B. Yeats
Okay, it's an exciting, colorful, even beautiful piece of Expressionist art painted by a man who knew how to move paint, but $1.77-million? Or take Yeats' A Fair Day, County Mayo (above), from 1925. It's an interesting crowd scene, not as colorful as his blockbuster; nonetheless, in 2015, it hammered down at £701,411. (a cool $1-million, give or take a few hundred). If Yeats were a major figure in art history or the international world of art, such prices might be understandable. And though he is good, he's not that good. Both paintings were bought by Brits, proud of their native artists, I'm sure. I don't know if that makes such prices understandable or not. In any case, I still find it hard to follow the logic (if there is any) behind collectors paying that kind of money for this kind of art. Of course, the fact that, Yeats died in 1957, insofar as collectors are concerned, never hurts.

Judging by the number of self-portraits Yeats painted over his lifetime, the influence of his father goes without saying, especially in noting the quality of his teenaged work (bottom-row, center).
Jack Butler Yeats was born in London in 1871, into a family of intellectual and artistic achievers. He studied painting and drawing at the Westminster School of Art before leaving to work as a graphic artist, cartoonist. In 1894 he created a cartoon strip of Sherlock Holmes, which he titled "Chubblock Holmes" (below). He was quite adept as an illustrator and watercolorist as well. He began dabbling in oils about 1887. Yeats grew up in Sligo located along the coast in the northern part of Ireland (but not Northern Ireland). There he lived with his maternal grandparents, before returning to his parents' home in London around 1887. Early in his career he worked as an illustrator for British magazines like the Boy's Own Paper and Judy.

Yeats drawing style as an illustrator bears little resemblance to his painting style.
From what I've been able to see in Yeats' earliest paintings, his style evolved gradually, breaking with his published illustrations to what could only be considered a rather Fauvist handling of both paint and color. He began by painting urban and rural life in Ireland. At the same time, he started using a wider and brighter range of colors, often applied very thickly with implements other than a paint-brush. His compositions included genre paintings of circuses, music halls, and horse races, and somber landscapes of Ireland's west coast, as well as scenes from Celtic mythology. Although Yeats began using oils as early as 1897, he did not do so regularly until around 1905, preferring watercolors instead. Yeats early oils were romantic depictions of landscapes and figures mostly from sites near his home in Sligo. Yeats was influenced by the French Impressionist masters he saw in the art collection of Sir Hugh Lane after which he began exhibiting at the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1899.

The Liffey Swim, 1923, Jack B. Yeats
Besides being a better than average Expressionist painter, Jack Yeats was an athletic painter as well. Yeats holds the distinction of being Ireland's first medalist at the Olympic Games following the independence of the Irish Free State. At the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, Yeats' painting The Liffey Swim (above) won a silver medal in the arts and culture segment of the games. The painting can now be found in the National Gallery of Ireland next to Yeats' silver medal. Both are most assuredly not for sale at any price.

The Boat Builder, 1913, Jack B. Yeats
Insofar as prices are concerned, it seems to matter little as to the period of time when Yeats' works were done, their subject matter, or even the painting style. Yeats' 1913 The Boat Builder (above) brought £422,500 ($637,000). The style is fairly similar to that of his illustrations from that time. In his mature, Expressionist style, Man in a Room Thinking (below), from 1947 landed a buyer for £66,000 ($94,000). A Horseman Enters a Town at Night (bottom) fetched almost £350,000 when sold recently ($504,000). The sum and substance of this little discourse seems to be that there's no obvious rhyme nor reason as to why some artists command such prices while others don't. Might I suggest you check out all the garage sales you can find. You might just enjoy the "luck of the Irish" if you stumble upon something with Jack B. Yeats' name on the bottom, but only if you can then convince the seller that no one has ever heard of the man. Hint; this is unlikely to work in Ireland.

Man in a Room Thinking, 1947, Jack B, Yeats
A Horseman Enters Town at Night, 1948, Jack B. Yeats

The Post Car, before 1920, Jack B. Yeats,
the artist's illustrative style.



  1. How can William B Yeats and Jack B Yeats be almost unknown artists? Good God!,

  2. it hammered down at £701,411. (a cool $1-million, give or take a few hundred) - Funny