Jack Butler Yeats, R.H.A. (1871-1957)
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Jack Butler Yeats, R.H.A. (1871-1957)

The Sky Lovers

Jack Butler Yeats, R.H.A. (1871-1957)
The Sky Lovers
signed 'JACK B/YEATS' (lower left); titled 'THE SKY LOVERS' (on the inside of the stretcher)
oil on canvas
20 x 27 in. (50.9 x 68.5 cm.)
Painted in 1947.
Purchased at the 1947 exhibition by a private collector, York.
with Richard Green, London, where purchased by the present owner.
H. Pyle, Jack B. Yeats: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings: Volume II, London, 1992, p. 796, no. 880.
Dublin, Victor Waddington Galleries, Jack B. Yeats: Paintings, October 1947, no. 4.
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Lot Essay

'His paintings have that vitality which can only come from true artistry; they convince and vibrate with colour and movement showing an instinctively natural and unerring selectivity: Yeats was the true painter poet.’
(Royal Hibernian Academy, Annual Report, Dublin, 1957)

With its vigorous brushstrokes and rich, heavily impastoed texture, The Sky Lovers provides a striking example of Yeats’ late painting style. Indeed, it was during the 1940s, his most productive period, that he began to produce his most expressive and exuberant works, impactful in both their colour and composition. The Sky Lovers is no exception. Two figures are depicted, seemingly surrounded by trees, looking to the sky, as one raises his hands imploringly to the heavens. Through his lyrical and expressive brushstrokes, Yeats evokes a sense of melancholia and perhaps even anguish. The figure on the right stands with mouth open as if in song, reminiscent of the ballad singers of his hometown, Sligo, a character that had captivated him since his youth, and which went on to provide inspiration throughout his artistic career.

What is perhaps most striking about The Sky Lovers, is the heightened emotion of the work. Earlier in the year of painting (1947) Yeats had lost his wife. Married in 1894, Cottie had been one of Yeats’ biggest supporters for 53 years, and indeed, in the aftermath of her death, he stopped painting for a brief period, overcome by grief. However, when he returned to his easel, a newfound emotional intensity found its way into his paintings. Even in his evocative colour palette of rich blue contrasted with luminous white, red and yellow, Yeats displays an outpouring of emotion. Hilary Pyle notes that the deep blue in particular is distinctive to a series of his paintings executed in the late 1940s. For these works, it was a colour reminiscent of remembrance. Here however, the dark sits in stark contrast to a bright sky, lifting what is otherwise a sombre tone. Perhaps it is in this contrast that we also see his mastery of light and the symbolism a work may hold, as he looks up to the sky and we consider what perchance this brightness represents for a man in mourning. Through his light and vigorous brushstrokes Yeats brings energy to the work, yet still a sense of desolation, and nostalgic yearning for something lost. Yeats predominantly painted from memory alone, wishing to capture the emotion of an event not simply recount scenes.

Indeed, Yeats had an enduring interest in poetry and literature, which is perhaps unsurprising given his rich literary and creative family. It was not only his brother, the renowned author William Butler Yeats, who penned poems, but Jack too spent much time writing. However, this innate sense of lyricism was not only translated into words, but also through his art. In particular during the 1940s, he produced a series of works brimming with the symbolism of poetry. In The Sky Lovers, the sense of lyricism and high emotion is visible in his evocative brushstrokes and sense of intense emotion. The figures act out a scene; a single moment of emotional intensity which gives the painting a theatrical and almost dramatic quality. The low and bright horizon, a common feature of his work, not only in part reflects the open landscape of his native Western Ireland, but also serves to emphasise the figures to the forefront, focusing the viewer’s attention on the poignancy of the moment, and highlighting his accomplished grasp of composition and balance.

Yeats acclaimed biographer, Hilary Pyle, discusses a group of eight large and important works painted at the start of the 1950s in which she notes that they are a series ‘which seem to have been planned to illustrate human emotions at their peak’. It is in works such as The Sky Lovers that we see the roots of some of Yeats’ most emotional and highly evocative works.

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