Childhood & Early Life
Yeats was born in London as one of the sons of the Irish portraitist John Butler Yeats. The renowned Nobel Prize winning writer William Butler Yeats was his brother.
He spent the most of his childhood and youth in Sligo with his maternal grandparents. His was deeply influenced by his grandfather, William Pollexfen who was a former seaman.
He visited numerous places like circuses, horse races, beaches, harbours, fairs, etc. in Sligo with his grandfather which enriched his knowledge of the country life.
He received his early art education at the Government School of Design in South Kensington before attending the Chiswick Art School. He continued his education at the prestigious Westminster School of Art under Fred Brown.
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He began his career as an illustrator for magazines; one of his first jobs was with the ‘Vegetarian’ with whom he worked for seven years. He also provided illustrations and drawings for other publications like ‘Punch’, ‘Manchester Guardian’ and ‘The Sketch’ to supplement his income.
He is credited to have produced the first cartoon strip of Sherlock Holmes, a parody ‘Chubb-Lock Homes’ for ‘Comic Cuts’ in 1894.
By this time he had started painting in watercolours. His favourite subjects were horses, circuses, ships, rural people and countryside. He held his first exhibition at the Clifford Galleries in 1897.
He was also a budding writer who worked as an editor and illustrator for several monthly magazines including ‘Broadsheet’ (1902-03) and ‘Broadside’ (1908-15).
Yeats also loved theatre and he built a miniature theatre in the countryside and wrote plays for the local children. Some of his children’s works were ‘A Little Fleet’ and ‘The Terror of the Western Seas’.
He began experimenting with oil colours during the later part of the 19th century and regularly produced oil paintings from 1905 and developed his signature style of using vivid colours and loose brush strokes.
He moved to Ireland in 1910 and settled there permanently. The political turmoil kindled Irish Nationalism in him, and although he was never an active participant in the Irish Republican cause, he supported it through his paintings.
In 1915, he painted ‘A Bachelor's Walk: in Memory’, depicting a girl placing flowers at the spot where British soldiers had shot down Irish men.
The works of Yeats never fell under any well defined category though they had elements of Romanticism during his earlier career. Over a period of time he began moving towards expressionism and developed his unique style of painting by 1920.
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His best known paintings of the decade were ‘The Funeral of Harry Boland’ (1922), ‘The Liffey Swim’ (1923) and ‘Communicating with Prisoners’ (1924), both of which conveyed strong political messages in favour of the Irish Republican cause.
Along with painting, he focused more on his literary career during the late 1920s and 1930s. He published several books during this period including ‘Sligo’ (1931), ‘The Amaranthers’ (1936) and ‘The Charmed Life’ (1938).
His wife whom he loved very much died in 1947 and this incident brought out a profound change in his painting style. He became more nostalgic and expressive. He experimented by painting with his fingers and directly from the paint tube instead of using a brush.
He had a close friendship with John M. Synge and illustrated two of Synge’s travel books, ‘The Aran Islands’ and ‘Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara’.
He loved writing and had produced several plays, novels and essays over his lifetime.
He was a very prominent painter of the 20th century, but this great artist did not take any pupils to pass along his art.
His ‘A Bachelor’s Walk: In Memory’ is one of his seminal works in support of the Irish Nationalist cause. The painting depicts a flower girl paying her respects at the spot in a street where several Irish men were gunned down by British soldiers.
His portrayal of Ireland’s famous sporting event, the Liffey Swim, an annual race in Dublin’s river Liffey in his painting ‘The Liffey Swim’ won him the country’s first ever Olympic Medal.