Jack B. Yeats regarded The Dark Man as one of his most important paintings. It depicts a blind man being lead through the busy streets of a country town and is based on a sketch that the artist made in Tralee, Co. Kerry in 1913 (H. Pyle, Jack B. Yeats. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Vol. I, London, 1992, p. 113. The sketch is in Sketchbook 180 , Yeats Archive, National Gallery of Ireland). The man holds on to the shoulder of an older, more formally attired gent. The poses of the two figures contrast. The relatively frail figure of the blind man holds his head upwards while his more solidly built companion strides forward purposefully. Behind them a busy streetscape of brightly painted shop façades, a horse drawn cart, a donkey pulling a dray and men and women attending to their business form a colourful and visually rich backdrop. The closed eyes of the blind man evoke the sensual surroundings in which he walks. These include not only the strong sunlight and bright colours but the sounds and smells of the animals and the shouts and chatter of the townspeople as they rush about their affairs.
The outsider is a central theme in Yeats’s oeuvre, and this included those whose physical differences marked them out from society. In an 1899 watercolour, also entitled The Dark Man, Yeats depicts a blind beggar who sits with arm outstretched with a card around his neck proclaiming, ‘Pity the Dark Man Christians your charity on the Dark Man bestow that his affliction you may never know’ (H. Pyle, Jack B. Yeats. His Watercolours, Drawings and Pastels, Dublin, 1993, p. 80). In the later painting, none of the other figures pays the blind man any attention. Clearly the blind man being guided along was a familiar sight in Tralee and not worthy of notice, except by the visiting artist.
The work was critically acclaimed when it was exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in 1920 and at a one man exhibition, Drawings and Paintings of Life in the West of Ireland, in the city in 1921. The Freeman’s Journal thought The Dark Man to be ‘the most ambitious effort’ in the latter exhibition and praised the dramatic vividness of the composition, noting ‘the skill with which Mr. Yeats has avoided sentimental pitfalls’ (JWG, Freeman’s Journal, 21 February 1921, p. 2). Seeing the work at the RHA, the same writer noted that The Dark Man ‘bears the stamp of personality’ (Freeman’s Journal, 5 April 1920, p. 2). Another reviewer, comparing Yeats’s empathetic approach to Irish life to that of the writer John M. Synge, wrote that ‘The charm of Mr. Jack Yeats lies superbly in the unaffected naiveté of his scenes. His countryfolk are superb as they stand before us invested with the boyish glamour of their associations’ (quoted in B. Arnold, Jack Yeats, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 235). The painting was sold by Yeats to the New York gallerist, Helen Hackett in 1929.
Dr Róisín Kennedy