At A Glance: Portraits by John Butler Yeats – Review

Johnbutleryeats

Ciara Kummert reviews ‘At a Glance: Portraits by John Butler Yeats’ on until 17 January 2016 at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Curated by Niamh MacNally, the cleverly named exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland is called ‘At a Glance’. It is fitting – each person depicted appears to be looking out from the frame whilst the person viewing the painting is afforded a glimpse of each person shown. We are allowed a peek into their lifestyles and their personality through the depictions. The images are drawn in graphite on paper and also oil on canvas.

By constantly searching for the moment of magic in terms of revealing his sitter’s inner soul or radiance, he lived on the brink of success which never quite seemed to become fact.

Born in a small village in County Down, John Butler Yeats went on to become a prolific artist, as did four of his six children who survived. Having been educated at Trinity College Dublin as a Barrister, John Butler Yeats decided to leave the profession in order to establish himself as an artist. The director of the National Gallery, Raymond Keaveney, who worked at the well-known establishment shortly after the life of John Butler Yeats, wrote of the painter: ‘By constantly searching for the moment of magic in terms of revealing his sitter’s inner soul or radiance, he lived on the brink of success which never quite seemed to become fact’.

The portraits displayed in ‘At a Glance’ include those of his son, Jack B Yeats as a young boy, famous playwrights, scholars, and self-portraits. Some are rough sketches and some are clearly defined. Looking at the images we can certainly see what the director meant about seeing the individual’s soul. The images are incredibly varied in how they are depicted, as some people are sketched roughly in soft graphite while others are painted with great care. Perhaps the soft and delicate portrayal of Susan Mary Pollexfen Yeats, the artist’s wife was meant to say something about how he viewed her.

The marrying of his keen eye for detail and the materials he used allowed him to vividly portray his feelings for the sitter.

Although the image looks unfinished, in that it looks more like an original outline or perhaps a snapshot of a moment which they shared together, this gives it a certain charm and perhaps demonstrates a great admiration for his wife. The portrait of John O’Leary, a nationalist and journalist, offers a striking contrast. A finished portrait, it reveals only the sitter’s face and hands, leaving the rest painted dark and emphasising the sitter’s expression and body language through his hands. It is clear that Yeats is particularly interested in his subjects. The marrying of his keen eye for detail and the materials he used allowed him to vividly portray his feelings for the sitter. We know that Yeats is interested in his subject as he portrays significant people in his life such as family members, focusing very much on the person he is painting rather than the background. We can tell that he has an intimate relationship with the sitter in the painting of his son, Jack B. Yeats. The sitter’s head is slightly tilted and he is looks at his father, on the other side of the canvas. In nearly every portrait displayed the sitter is making eye contact with the painter, showing a strong bond between sitter and painter. JB Yeats decided to paint large-sized portraits of family members and also himself, suggesting their significance. By using oil rather than graphite for his more important pieces, he was able to give a great sense of life to the sitter.

Portrait painting with me is friendship or it might be hatred, but I must have real personal interest in whom I paint.

John Butler Yeats wrote a letter to Rosa Butt, saying ‘I have one distinction among portrait painters. I take great interest in the person that I paint. Portrait painting with me is friendship or it might be hatred, but I must have real personal interest in whom I paint, whereas other painters, even the very best, only think about the painting’.

This exhibition can be viewed free of charge in the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery of Ireland, South Leinster Street, until 17 January 2016. The display coincides with the year-long 150th anniversary celebrations of WB Yeats’ birth.

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