Jack Butler Yeats was born in London in 1871, the youngest son of Irish portraitist John Butler Yeats, and the brother of the Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats. He studied painting and drawing at the Westminster School of Art under Fred Brown, before leaving to work as a graphic artist, cartoonist, illustrator and water-colourist.
While he began using oils from about 1897, Yeats did not regularly produce oil paintings until 1905, preferring to work in watercolours. His early artworks were romantic depictions of landscapes and figures from the west of Ireland, particularly from his home in Sligo. He was influenced by the French Impressionist masters in the art collection of Sir Hugh Lane and began exhibiting at the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1899.
After residing in London, he lived in Devon (England) for fourteen years, before moving to Greystones in county Wicklow. In 1917, he moved to Dublin. From around 1920, he developed a much more Expressionist style, moving from illustration to symbolism.
Sympathetic to but not active in the Irish Republican movement, he began to produce emotional, yet realistic, paintings of urban and rural life in Ireland. At the same time, he started using a wider and brighter range of colours – often applied very thickly with implements other than a paint-brush – along with free and loose brushstrokes. His compositions included genre paintings of circuses, music halls, and horse races, sombre landscapes of Ireland’s west coast, as well as scenes from Celtic mythology. In 1924, he was awarded the silver medal for painting at the Tailteann Games.
After the death of his wife in 1947, to whom he had been happily married since 1894, his work became increasingly nostalgic. Retrospective exhibitions of his paintings were held at the National Gallery, London, 1942, in Dublin 1945, in the London Tate Gallery 1948, while a showing of his last works was staged at the Waddington Galleries, London, in 1958.
Although some critics have dismissed Jack B Yeats’ artwork as irrelevant, an exhibition of his paintings at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, in 1971, revived his reputation as perhaps the most important modern painter in the history of Irish art. Jack B Yeats passed away in Dublin on March 28, 1957.