Though parts of the National Gallery of Ireland were being renovated during my stay in Dublin, the museum nevertheless maintains its power to captivate. Despite housing masterpieces from throughout Europe, the museum’s Irish collection holds its own, amongst the more ancient Dutch and Italian masterpieces.
Perhaps its because these are Ireland’s best. One painter, with whom I was less familiar, but intensely impressed, was John Butler Yeats. Though I had read works by his literary icon of a brother, W. B. Yeats, I had never researched much into his brother, also an author but more famously an artist.
The Yeats collection is unique to Dublin. The Yeats Archive was donated to the Gallery by Anne Yeats in 1996. John or “Jack” Yeats was born in Great Britain and named for his father, an Irish-born artist. After marrying Mary Cottenham in 1894, Yeats returned to Ireland. Here Yeats adopted a technique of Expressionism and frequently concentrated on distinctly Irish subject matter.
One of Yeats paintings found in the Gallery is “The Liffey Swim;” it does not immediately stand out, as it lacks the color, size and dramatic brushstrokes of some Yeats’ surrounding paintings. However, Yeats was awarded the silver medal for this work at the 1924 Paris Olympics. It depicts Dublin’s mile-and-a-half-long swimming race in the river Liffey, held annually in the early 1920s. The perspective of the painting is from a spectator’s point of view, surrounded by the crowd, leaning in to see the larger than life (literally in the painting) swimmers as they neared the completion of the race. By distorting size and angle, Yeats presents a more encompassing effect of what this scene may have actually been like. This is also one of Yeats more jovial subjects at this time, as many of his works in the 1920s represented the cause of the Irish Free State and related loss of life. In the “The Liffey Swim” all members of Dublin’s society are represented, joyful, unified and engulfed in a distinctly Irish tradition.