Jack Butler Yeats
Biography and Paintings of Irish Expressionist Artist.

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Jack B Yeats (1871-1957)

One of the most important figures in the visual art of Ireland during the 20th century, Jack B Yeats' paintings of Irish life and Celtic mythology contributed to the surge of nationalism in Irish painting after the War of Independence. A fine draughtsman, his status as one of the great Irish artists of the modern era is reinforced by the fact he was the first painter from Ireland to sell a painting for £1 million. For details, see: Most Expensive Irish Paintings.


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 (in 1894 he created the first cartoon strip of Sherlock Holmes), illustrator and water-colourist.

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Most Famous Paintings

The Singing Horseman (1949)

Off the Donegal Coast (1922) stems
from a drawing made by Yeats in
1906, which depicted four fishermen
in their currach, pausing on the top
of a large wave to scour the horizon
for land. This painting shows a point
of extreme danger as the fishermen
in their flimsy canvas-built craft are
caught in a storm and try to catch the
rope thrown from a lifeboat. The
drama is perfectly captured in Yeats'
vigorous brushstrokes and strong,
natural colours.

The Whistle of a Jacket (1946)
The most expensive painting by
Jack B Yeats. Sold for £1.4 million.

The Liffey Swim (1923)

The Small Ring (1930) produced in
the loose expressionist manner Yeats
mastered during the late twenties,
depicts a young boxer just as he
knocks out his opponent. The crowd
around him, even his 'second' with
the towel, are transfixed with surprise.
The painting contains a number of
different messages.

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.

Most Expensive Painting by Jack B Yeats

The auction record for a work by Jack B Yeats was set in 2001, when his expressionist painting, entitled The Whistle of a Jacket (1946), was sold at Christie's, in London, for £1.4 million. Other top-prices achieved by Yeats' paintings at auction, include: The Wild Ones (1947), sold for £1,233,500 at Sotheby's London, May 1999; and A Fair Day, Mayo (1925), sold for €1,000,000 at Adam's, Dublin, Sept 2011.

More Information About Irish Visual Arts and Culture

• For more about painters in Ireland, like Jack B Yeats, see: Irish Art Guide.
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