Jack Butler Yeats Was a Political Radical

Jack Butler Yeats, the most important 20th-century Irish painter, is often presented in apolitical terms of pictorial technique. Yet his work was deeply colored by Ireland’s independence struggle — and the yearnings for human dignity that inspired it.

Painter Jack Butler Yeats. (National Gallery of Ireland via Wikimedia Commons)

“How is it then,” asked John Berger in 1960, that he, “a Marxist, c[ould] find so much truth and splendour in the art of an arch-romantic such as Yeats?” The combative young critic had in 1956 paid a visit to the painter in question, Jack B. Yeats, in Dublin, gifting him a copy of Dylan Thomas’s poems, and later penning a short essay in praise of the Irish artist, whom he considered “a master: he teaches us to hope.”

It was this last quality, for Berger, that provided the surest answer to his initial question: Yeats’s “romantic view of life,” he wrote, was unusual, in that it brought the painter “closer to his subjects — his horsemen, actors, lovers, talkers, beggars — instead of separating him from them.” This in turn infused his work with a human sympathy that teemed with “a sense of the future, an awareness of the possibility of a world other than the one we know.” No true Marxist, Berger believed, could fail to be moved by such an aesthetic.

Berger’s assessment is an outlier among critical responses to Yeats’s oeuvre, which have tended to foreground issues of genre and pictorial technique, while leaving the social basis and cultural politics of his work largely undiscussed. As Róisín Kennedy has observed, Yeats is generally presented and interpreted — from scholarship to TV and exhibition notes — as “an apolitical artist whose art contains no wider agenda than his own poetic needs.” Ever the heretic, Berger glimpsed a more radical figure behind this innocuous façade, identifying the London-born painter’s wild, weathery canvases with the “fight [against] English imperialism” and “the image of the independent individual Rebel.” Yeats may have been an “arch-romantic,” but the impulses that drove and enriched his paintings were attuned to history, and alert, in the context of Ireland’s tumultuous liberation and state-building movements, to deep traditions and fresh possibilities of political change.

“Very Republican”

Perhaps the most well-known expression of Yeats’s public sympathies in the period preceding the Easter Rising in 1916 is Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory (1915), commemorating four civilians shot by British forces in late July of 1914. Blending realist rendition with allegorical resonance, it pictures a woman in profile as she places a flower at the scene of the crime, some days later, as a sullen, barefooted boy nearby stares down the Dublin quays, bathed in a tingling half-light — a stirring evocation of dignity and defiance, in an atmosphere of violent misrule. As Samuel Beckett later summarized, his friend “was very Republican” in outlook (and “always polishing up on his Irish”).

Jack Butler Years, Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory (1915). (National Gallery of Ireland, purchased, 2021, with generous and special support from the Government of Ireland and key contributions from several donors)

Yeats, however, was no middle-of-the-road nationalist. As the battle for Irish freedom ruptured and dissolved into brutal civil war, he increasingly found himself on the side of those agitators (including, notably, almost the entire membership of the women’s nationalist organization, Cumann na mBan) who opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty that partitioned the island in 1921, and resisted the punitive Free State it created in the South.

Yeats’s art, as ever, documented the times. Recording the burial of the prominent anti-Treaty politician, Harry Boland, murdered (while unarmed) by Free State forces during a raid on his Dublin hotel room, The Funeral of Harry Boland (1922) captures the ambience of shock and political tension among the mourners, as the blue sheen of turned-up earth seems to open up and illuminate the regimented cemetery. Another canvas, Communicating With Prisoners (1924), shows a group of women gathered outside Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol, as they call up to captives in their cells, imprisoned for their anti-Treaty activities; with the fortress-like monolith of the jailhouse looming in the background, as an advertising billboard shines in the left foreground, the painting offers a vivid, and haunting, critique of the repressions built into the new Irish “Free State.”

Jack Butler Yeats, Communicating With Prisoners (1924). (The Model, Niland Collection, purchased by public subscription from the Capuchin Annual in 1962)

Both pieces marked a dynamic advance in Yeats’s work, but they were also significant in the context of the Irish arts scene in general. As Ernie O’Malley, the writer and (unrepentantly left-wing) former Irish Republican Army commander, later recalled, Yeats’s “depiction of national events” had seemed “completely new in Irish painting” — the contemporaneous guerrilla portraits and heightened allegories of the Limerick artist Seán Keating notwithstanding.

Not Forgetting the Workers

Even as a younger artist, however, and before the intimate cataclysm of the civil war years, Yeats had been a close observer of Irish political life. His numerous sketchbooks demonstrated an acute consciousness of the class tensions and social inequalities that churned below the surface of Edwardian Ireland’s rapidly modernizing society (tensions that persisted, of course, long after the war of independence had ended). In 1913, he etched into his notebook a view of workers assembling on the streets of Dublin during the mass strike and infamous “lockout” of that year, as well as completing another notational drawing of James Larkin — the militant union leader and cofounder, with socialists James Connolly and Jack White, of the Irish Citizen Army — leaning out of a window in Liberty Hall, to deliver a speech to the strikers below. A decade earlier, likewise, Yeats’s papers suggest that he had been in sympathy with corn workers laid off from the job, with one drawing portraying a group of approximately fifty men marching under police escort, with a protest banner that reads, “unemployed don’t forget the corn workers.”

Perhaps due to personal sensibility, as well as artistic disposition, Yeats preferred to observe from the nooks and edges of public life, rather than placing himself at the polemical heart of the action, as his brother William occasionally did (in his roles as poet and senator). Whereas William B. Yeats harbored an elitist, and creatively fruitful, disdain for what he viewed as the philistinism and mob-like tendencies of the Catholic masses, Jack, who began his professional career as a caricaturist and freelance illustrator in England, was glad to immerse his art in the daily round and popular pleasures of his time. His back catalog is filled with circus acts, music-hall scenes, and horse races — as in the early oil painting, Before the Start (1915), where three jockeys are glimpsed in a posture of unsmiling determination, as they maneuver their horses to the starting point of a race, over the expectant heads of a watching crowd.

The populist American artist George Bellows famously represented boxing as a savage form of entertainment, with ringside onlookers leering salaciously as combatants pummeled each other to bits. But in works such as The Small Ring (1930), Yeats delighted in the art, depicting its sportsmen in quasi-mythic terms, while capturing the visceral spectacle of the matches as popular events. Donnelly’s Hollow (1936) visits the titular site in Kildare, where in 1815, in the extended aftermath of Ireland’s defeated republican rebellions of 1798 and 1803, the Irish boxer Daniel Donnelly claimed victory over the reigning English champion, George Cooper, in the presence of an estimated twenty thousand spectators. The picture surges with imaginative passion — sunlight and shade flooding the green slopes of the natural amphitheater — as visitors to the glen stand tall, reimagining the dramatic bout.

Popular Feeling

In his short-story collection, Dubliners (1914), a young James Joyce had detected in the Irish capital a pervasive and stultifying “paralysis.” Yeats’s urban portraits, however, often gleam with understated pathos and a physicality of perception that give the same streets a dynamic hue. The Liffey Swim (1923) crackles with the enthusiasm rippling through the Dublin crowds as they throng the banks of the River Liffey, eyes fixed on the swimmers racing through the mud-blue waters. Completed in 1923, as the atrocities and schisms of the Irish Civil War continued to wrack the nation, the painting documents a shared event in the collective life of the city’s inhabitants, a moment of common enthusiasm and pleasure that seems, in its way, heroic and inspiring. In contrast to many modernists, impelled by a repugnance for the masses and their culture, Yeats’s work is awash with popular feeling; his art is of and for the people.

Far from shirking the harsher aspects of contemporary history, however, Yeats had a documentarian’s eye, and an instinctive personal sympathy, for figures cast off by modernity or pushed to the edges of society. Remembering the writer John Millington Synge, a close friend and collaborator, Yeats suggested, with a mixture of boyish vividness and warmth, that

[if] he had lived in the days of piracy he would have been the fiddler in a pirate-schooner, him they called “The Music”. “The Music” looked on at everything with dancing eyes but drew no sword, and when the schooner was taken and the pirates hung at Cape Corso Castle or the Island of Saint Christopher’s, “The Music” was spared because he was “The Music”.

Synge is famous today as the author of The Playboy of the Western World, a knowingly provocative island-drama that prefigures, and outshines, Martin McDonagh’s violent and hyperbolic Irish pastiches a century later. Like Yeats himself, however, Synge also took an engaged interest in the conditions (of life, work, revelry, and subsistence) that pertained among marginalized communities, documenting the words and experiences of poor, homeless, and uprooted populations in Wicklow, Kerry, and Connemara. “These people live for the most part beside old roads and pathways where hardly one man passes in a day,” Synge recorded of the indigents sheltering in the Wicklow mountains: “[they] look out all the year on un-broken barriers of heath.” Meanwhile, he went on, the “old people who have direct tradition of [Fenian] Rebellion, and a real interest in it, are growing less numerous daily, but one still meets with them here and there in the remote districts.”

An implicit empathy, and a seething social anger, smolders in Synge’s otherwise carefully clear-eyed account of his travels, qualities that are equally evident in the work of Yeats, whose illustrations accompanied the published testimonies above in 1911, offering stark visual portrayals of Synge’s vagrants and the desolate landscapes they moved through (a factor that may in fact complicate Berger’s designation of Yeats as a “romantic” working in a nationalist idiom). As an American critic noted, somewhat reprovingly, the following year, the “people Mr Yeats is interested in are a rough, hard-bitten, unshaven, and [a] generally disreputable lot.”

In a manner that may have influenced Beckett’s later dramas and novels, tramps, clowns, paupers, and itinerant outsiders continuously appear in Yeats’s repertoire, their fate and resilience through time assuming an almost metaphysical force in many of his late paintings. Livid and aching, Death for Only One (1937) seems like a visual distillation of wild pain and mourning in a scenario defined by destitution and beleaguerment, showing, as Yeats put it, “a dead tramp lying on a headland with another tramp standing by — and a dark sea and dark sky.” In No Flowers (1945), likewise, an old man, lean and disheveled, has no flowers to lay on the grave of a loved one, and so stoops to place fallen leaves on the dirt mound instead, as the graveyard behind him flares in lurid sunshine, a haze of grief-flecked reds and greens. By contrast, a later painting again, Roadsters Old and Young (1956), brims with sensation, as a straggling band of unkempt foot-travelers sways through a wind-lifted landscape under beryl skies: a portrait of vagabondage, and a vision of freedom.

Jack Butler Yeats, Roadster Old and Young (1956). (Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Maxine Kunstadter)


As above — and although Yeats remained a figurative painter, portraying recognizably human forms and situations — his later canvases especially have a free-flowing chromatic richness and sustained emotional intensity that make them analogous, at times, to the mature work of Jackson Pollock, for instance. In its combination of elemental wildness and technical control, its sense of unsentimental mortal repose, Sleep Sound (1955), one of Yeats’s very last paintings, may be compared to Pollock’s Full Fathom Five (1947). Certainly, Yeats’s experimentalism was no less daring, in aesthetic terms, for its denotative tendencies and pictorial roots.

If anything, the visionary power of his work attains depth and focus, an inclusive specificity, through its insistence on eye-level familiarity and humane recognition as requisite modes of artistic creation (a feature frequently lacking in the designs and canvases of the mid-century abstract expressionists across the water). As Berger intuited, Yeats not only chronicled the rhythms, struggles, and shifting aspirations of the Irish people through a period of radical change; he was, himself, a radical painter — mustering, from within the contours of a drab and embattled present, an art of passionate and egalitarian perception. He was a transformative artist, charged with the griefs and hopes of his time.