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Masterpiece 1: Jack B. Yeats Masterpiece 1 - Communicating with Prisoners (Jack B. Yeats)
© Estate of Jack B Yeats. All rights reserved / DACS 2012. Photo © The Model, Sligo

Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957)
Communicating with Prisoners, c.1924
Oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm
(Purchased by public subscription from the Capuchin Annual, 1962.)
The Model, Sligo
The Artist

Jack B. Yeats was the son of the portrait painter John Butler Yeats and the brother of the poet W. B.Yeats. Though he was born in London, Jack spent most of his childhood in Sligo in the care of his maternal grandparents. It was a place that influenced him deeply and he later said that every painting he produced "had a thought of Sligo in it". In 1894, he married his fellow art student Mary Cottenham White, and they settled in England. He held his first solo show in London in 1897 and shortly afterwards he began to focus solely on Irish subject matter. In 1910 he returned to live in Ireland. His wide-ranging interest in all of humanity led him to depict subjects ranging from street scenes, to boxing matches, the races, and funerals.

Yeats' early paintings were in watercolour and he was over thirty by the time he began to work regularly in oils. For years, his style remained essentially conservative, but in the mid-1920s a profound change began to take place. Yeats' handling grew much freer, his forms were defined by brushstrokes rather than by line, his colours grew richer and more luminous and his earlier realism gradually gave way to a moody, intimate and highly personal romanticism. These tendencies grew even more marked over the next two decades, until in his final years when his subject matter is sometimes buried and almost obliterated by rich impasto, bravura brushwork and flame-like areas of colour.

Jack B Yeats died in Dublin on March 28 1957.

The Painting

In Communicating with Prisoners, 1924, Yeats' most Goya-like work, a group of seven women and one boy, wearing a variety of hats, listen to a shout from one (hands joined in a megaphone?) of a ring of indistinct prisoners looking out from the top of a Kilmainham jail bastion, its bulk balanced on the left by a surprising billboard of colourful posters: one shows a Santa Claus; another, a figure on a ladder. In the distance, a fused line of grey houses closes off the space, under a cloudy sky. There is a burst of yellow light at the base of the tower that silhouettes the heads of some of the women.

The painting - one of Yeats' best - is seen in one arc of vision, as if noticed by someone behind the small crowd who paused before moving on. It is an important picture on two counts. It shows Yeats' work in transit from literal observation to a sketchy painterliness that would eventually consume - and sometimes cannibalise - subjects even as it presented them.

It also testifies to Yeats' stealthy presence in and about the social turbulence through which a new country was being born. (Brian O'Doherty)


Foreword by Mike Murphy Foreword by Mike Murphy

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