Permanent loan from the FNCI
John Butler Yeats lived and worked in Dublin, London and New York. He abandoned careers in the church and the legal profession to become a painter. He showed great skill as a portraitist and illustrator, at his best when painting his friends, but few commercial talents. He was the father of Ireland’s most famous artistic and literary family; his sons, William and Jack (see page ???) were to be the most famous poet and artist respectively in Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century, with reputations that went far beyond their homeland; his daughters, Susan Mary (Lily) and Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly) founded and ran the influential Cuala Press, drawing on a range of design and business skills. This portrait is one of a series of portraits and sketches of Yeats’s friend the Fenian revolutionary, John O’Leary. O’Leary (1830–1907), a Tipperary man, had served five years in prison (1865–70) for printing a separatist, nationalist newspaper, and been banned from Ireland for a further fifteen years which he spent as a political exile in Paris. Yeats painted him on at least four occasions. George Coffey, RHA, thought his 1891 portrait of O’Leary, ‘probably the finest portrait done by an Irish artist in recent years, … indeed a great portrait” (Murphy, p. 223), but a critic for the Irish Times criticized Yeats for lavishing too much attention on the sitter’s thoughtful character and not enough on the bodily structure. Both the 1891 and 1904 portraits of O’Leary now in the NGI, show him sitting down, as does a third portrait from the Contemporary Club. The Clonmel portrait, on the other hand, shows O’Leary walking, lost in thought, oblivious to his surroundings and to the dimly perceived alter-ego figure on his left. The artist’s emphasis is centred on the sitter’s inner state as revealed though his piercing eyes, while the arms and rest of the body remain sketchy and incomplete.