This early oil painting is based on a scene that the artist sketched in Tralee, Co. Kerry in the summer of 1913 (Sketchbook 180, Yeats Archive, National Gallery of Ireland). A man is resting on a line of barrels outside a public house. His crutches are balanced carefully, and he reclines with his head on his hand in a conventional melancholy pose. Two men stand in the doorway of the pub, deep in conversation and oblivious to the figure. They carry walking sticks and are dressed in smart jackets and hats, indicating from other such figures in Yeats’s work that they are farmers in town on business. Their attire contrasts with that of the crippled man whose trousers are patched in pale blue fabric. The street is empty and the buildings cast deep shadows across the side street to the right. The activity inside in the pub is obscured by the screens across its windows but the large advertisements and colourful sporting prints hint at the conversation that might be heard in its interior. The circus, sports and a race meeting are advertised.
The painting presents a positive image of life in an Irish country town, even romanticizing the figure of the crippled man. While he rests, activity surrounds him, even the barrels on which he lies refer to commerce and industry. The composition is built up in strong geometric formations. The rectangular doorways and window frames of the buildings and pavements contrast with the rounded forms of the barrels and the undulating figure of the reclining man. The rough surface of the street is conveyed through the irregular application of paint, reminiscent of the great realist paintings of the 19th century. Pale blue and grey tones dominate the palette. These are dramatically contrasted in certain parts by intense reds such as those found in the metal rims of the barrels reflecting back sunlight, and in the window of the shop in the alleyway.
Yeats was intensely interested in depicting different social types in his work of these years. He produced a series of oil paintings as illustrations for George Birmingham’s Irishmen All, in 1913, which comprised of depictions of the principal characters to be found in the West of Ireland. Unlike more conventional and clichéd images of Irish life, A Summer Day presents the figures as individuals and balances humour with an empathetic quality that was recognized as a distinctive contribution of Yeats’s representation of Irish life. Hilary Pyle connects this concern with the plight of ordinary Irishmen and women, as seen in this work, to other well-known paintings such as Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory (1915, National Gallery of Ireland) (H. Pyle, Jack B. Yeats. A Biography, London, 1970, p. 117). Social inequality reached a low point in Ireland in 1913 with the Dublin Lockout but Yeats had already witnessed it on his visits to the Congested Districts Board regions of Galway and Mayo in 1905. While acknowledging poverty in his work, Yeats offsets its negative effects by focusing on sympathetic individuals who are presented as an intrinsic part of the community in which they exist. In A Summer Day he presents the vagrant as stoic and philosophical as he lies in the sunlight, taking in the chatter and goings on of the town.
Dr Róisín Kennedy