A fine portrait of W. B. Yeats, signed ‘J.B. Yeats fecit 1886’, the Mosada portrait.

YEATS John Butler (1886.)


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A genius is launched upon the world

Pen and ink on paper, sheet size 23 x 25 cm, newly mounted and framed in a stout oak arts and crafts frame of the period. 

The portrait which launched W.B. Yeats on the literary world. 

W. B. Yeats’ play Mosada first appeared in the Dublin University Review, and became his first book when published in October 1886, in a small edition paid for by the poet's father, who also chose this portrait as frontispiece. The presence of a portrait of the author, for the first book of a 21 year old, drew criticism at the time as being rather portentous: Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of it "For a young man's pamphlet this was something too much; but you will understand a father's feeling", and the poet himself was still defensive about it fourteen years later, writing that "I was alarmed at the impudence of putting a portrait in my first book but my father was full of ancient and modern instances.” 

 It is an astonishingly eloquent drawing, announcing a great poet at the outset of his career: the poet invites the reader to challenge his arrival, and the artist affirms both the son’s genius and the father’s role in it. It distills the young poet’s single-minded oddness: “‘a queer youth named Yeats’ . . . a rare moth”; a “tall, lanky, angular youth, a gentle dreamer”; “ ‘the deference due to genius and the amusement which is the lot of the oddity.’ ” (all quotations from Murphy).

William Murphy’s biography of John Butler Yeats is tellingly titled Prodigal Father, and from a relatively early age his children had to support him emotionally and often financially. They were all notably industrious in their own lives, and it is tempting to see this as a reaction against their father's lack of focus. He is highly regarded as a formal portraitist “by far the greatest painter that Ireland [had] produced” (Henry Lamb, quoted by Murphy), but never achieved consistent commercial success, and as he matured as an artist he found it increasingly difficult to complete work: “more and more he disregarded hands and garments, concentrating on the face; but as the face changed continually the work never ended,” (Murphy). None of these qualifications apply to his sketches and drawings which are often stronger and more evocative than his more heavily-worked oils.                                  

In their own ways father and son were both lifelong seekers for truth. “All my life I have fancied myself just on the verge of discovering the primum mobile” wrote the father in 1914, but whereas the son was continually reinventing himself as a poet, restlessly interrogating his muse, the father was cursed to repaint and repaint. His famous self-portrait was commissioned by John Quinn in 1911, and remained unfinished at the artist's death in 1922; the son in Reveries over Childhood and Youth told how his father "started a painting in the spring, and as the season went on added the buds and leaves to what had been bare trees, then covered them over with the rich foliage of summer, painted the green out as fall came, and ended up with a landscape of snow." (Murphy, The Drawings of John Butler Yeats).

“In one important saving characteristic, however, he remained his father’s son: he would not compromise his art” (Foster), and at the end of his own life the son celebrated the father in the opening to his poem "Beautiful lofty things", where John Butler Yeats is listed as one of his Olympians.

Beautiful lofty things: O'Leary's noble head;

My father upon the Abbey stage, before him a raging crowd:

'This Land of Saints,' and then as the applause died out,

'Of plaster Saints'; his beautiful mischievous head thrown back. 


Provenance: reproduced by zincography in the first edition of Mosada; by descent to the current generation of the family by whom sold at auction in Kilkenny, Dec 2017. Probably item 20 in the exhibition Paintings and Drawings by John Butler Yeats from the Collection of Senator Michael B. Yeats at the National Gallery of Ireland in November 1972, but only reproduced since then from a copy of the book.

R.F. Foster, W.B Yeats a Life; William Murphy, Prodigal Father, the Life of John Butler Yeats; The Drawings of John Butler Yeats, Albany 1987.

Stock Code: 228049

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