Yeats, John Butler (1839–1922), painter and critic, was the eldest of the three sons of the Rev. William Butler Yeats (1806–62), Church of Ireland rector of Tullylish, Co. Down, and his wife, Jane Grace Corbet (1811–76). John Butler Yeats was brought up in a strict protestant evangelical tradition. His mother opposed ‘Johnnie's’ interest in drawing, but his father encouraged it, covertly. Unlike most of his clerical colleagues, the Reverend William Yeats was sympathetic to Roman catholics and raised funds for famine relief. However, he had no contact with the local presbyterian minister. He was an intellectual and needed the stimulus of lively company, as did his son.
Upbringing, education and London After a bleak period at a strictly religious school at Seaforth, near Liverpool, run by three maiden sisters named Davenport, John and his two brothers were educated at the Atholl Academy, a private school in the Isle of Man, run by a Scotsman who believed in flogging. He excelled academically, and in 1857 entered TCD, where his father, grandfather and several other members of the Yeats family had studied. He was a ‘pensioner’, which meant having no financial assistance, his family paying the fees. His father, in his retirement from Tullylish rectory, moved to Sandymount on the coast of Dublin Bay, and the Yeats family moved in the highest literary circles, which included the Wildes.
John came to dislike Trinity, despising it as a colonial institution that looked to England and Dublin castle rather than truly nationalist Ireland. His tutor was John Kells Ingram (qv), the political economist and (sometime) radical poet. Yeats applied for the Trinity College prize for political economy, the only applicant, was interviewed and duly awarded it. The prize amounted to £10, which he used to travel to Sligo, to visit his friends the Pollexfens, whom he had met at school on the Isle of Man. This first visit to Sligo impressed him greatly. He found the place beautiful and romantic. After graduating from Trinity in 1862, and having no calling to his father's vocation, John enrolled at the King's Inns to study for the Irish bar, to which he was called in 1866, though he never practised. In 1862 his father suddenly died, leaving him a small estate near Thomastown, Co. Kildare, which provided an income of several hundred pounds a year. In 1863 he married Susan Pollexfen (1841–1900) of Sligo, and in 1865 their eldest son, William Butler Yeats (qv), was born.
By this time determined to become a painter, he left for London early in 1867, and enrolled at Heatherley's, a well known private art school, renowned for its beautiful female models. He found a house at 23 Fitzroy Road, near Regent's Park, where his wife, son Willie and two daughters Lily (Susan Mary Yeats (qv)) and Lollie (Elizabeth Corbet Yeats (qv)) joined him in the summer. Their youngest sons, Robert Corbet Yeats and Jack Butler Yeats (qv), were born there in 1870 and 1871 respectively. Susan Yeats, however, was unhappy away from Ireland, and the children spent long periods in Sligo. John Yeats received encouragement from two Irish-born artists established in London, John Henry Foley (qv), the sculptor, and Richard (Dicky) Doyle (qv), the comic illustrator. He eked out a living by sending illustrations to magazines, but his ambition was to be a society portrait painter. But what his son W. B. Yeats described as ‘an infirmity of will’ prevented him from completing commissions on time, and ruined his career as an artist. James White described him as unbusinesslike in outlook but with an ‘extremely rounded philosophy of life’. He was a great talker, and this became his chief occupation.
Artistic career in Ireland Because of his failure in London, the family returned to Ireland in 1881, and John started to exhibit paintings at the Royal Hibernian Academy, which elected him RHA in 1892. He had no difficulty in obtaining commissions, as his portraits were admired, but he was no businessman and made very little money. The Ulster Museum, Belfast, has a portrait by Yeats of the Co. Derry-born barrister Acheson T. Henderson QC (1812–1909). It is dated 1891, but was apparently commissioned about 1882. This delay in completion seems typical. In 1887 he returned to London, leaving his family in Ireland.
After the death of his wife, Susan, in 1900, Yeats returned to Dublin, where in October 1901 Sarah Purser (qv) staged a joint exhibition of Yeats and Nathaniel Hone (qv) RHA, giving him a brief period in the spotlight. Most significantly, his work attracted the attention of a young Irish-American lawyer, John Quinn (qv), who was to be his main patron and support for the rest of his life, despite their frequent clashes. The Ulster Museum also has a brilliant pencil portrait drawing of John Butler Yeats by Sarah Purser. This seems to date from about 1901, the year of Sarah Purser's joint exhibition in Dublin of Yeats and Hone – both artists she considered to be unduly neglected. Sarah Purser's soft pencil drawing style about 1900 was very close to that of her friend Yeats. The influence of Sir Hugh Lane (qv) led to a number of commissions for Yeats of portraits of literary and political figures. Many of these belong to the NGI, where they were admired by the American painter Robert Henri, who considered Yeats the greatest ‘British’ portrait painter of the nineteenth century, and by Lane's biographer, Thomas Bodkin (qv), sometime director of the National Gallery, later first Barber professor of fine art in the University of Birmingham.
Artistic career in New York A decisive break came in December 1908 when, at the age of sixty-nine, Yeats decided on impulse to accompany his daughter Lily to New York, using money given him by Sir Hugh Lane for a trip to Italy. Lily was involved in organising the month-long Irish Exhibition at Madison Square Garden. They sailed from Liverpool, and were met at the New York quayside by John Quinn, who negotiated them through the customs. Yeats's intention was of quickly taking the city by storm and attracting many Irish-American patrons, then returning to Ireland laden with dollars. This was not to happen. He was to spend the rest of his life there, with Quinn's support. Lily went back to Ireland without her father, whom she never saw again, and he refused all the family's pressures to return.
John Yeats quickly entered the New York artistic community, and was friendly with the poet Ezra Pound (also a profound influence on W. B.) and with ‘Ashcan School’ painters such as John Sloan (of Ulster presbyterian descent) and Robert Henri, though he was old enough to be their father. They were about the same age as his son Jack Butler Yeats. They met at Petipas boarding house, where Yeats lodged, and the Casalinga Club. Sloan mentions Yeats in his diary of 22 July 1908 as ‘a very interesting old gentleman with white beard. Kindly and well-informed, he is a painter, I believe, also a writer’. This group opposed the conservative attitude of the National Academy of Design in New York. They held independent exhibitions in 1908 and 1910, and in 1913 were instrumental in organising the momentously important Armory Show, which introduced the American public for the first time to the work of contemporary Parisian post-impressionist and cubist artists. This show also included work by John's youngest son, Jack Butler Yeats.
New York society In New York, Yeats never achieved the prestige as a portraitist that he desired, and was more recognised for his fluent conversation and writing. Through Quinn, who kept an artistic salon for visiting Europeans, he met the sinister magician Aleister Crowley, satanist and drug addict, and found him repulsive. Another visitor was Sir Roger Casement (qv). Quinn commissioned his own portrait from Yeats, for a fee of $150, but characteristically the portrait was never finished. Yeats found Quinn's egg-shaped bald head and bland features hard to express in paint. Ezra Pound edited a volume of his selected letters, published in 1917. His essays for Harper's Weekly were collected under the title Essays, Irish and American, published in New York in 1918. A volume Early memories, a chapter of autobiography, was published posthumously by the Cuala Press in Dublin, formerly the Dun Emer Guild. Yeats started to suffer from lung infections, and had a long illness from pneumonia in late 1918, which he bore cheerfully. He strongly disapproved of his son Willie's growing interest in magic and mysticism, and of his friendship with the mystical painter–poet George Russell (qv) (Æ). He also disapproved of the rising fashion for Christian Science, and chose as his favourite medicines wine, tobacco, good living and talk. In January 1920 W. B. Yeats started another American tour, accompanied by his English wife, George (qv), who was much younger than her husband. While Willie was travelling to Toronto and Quebec, George stayed in New York and visited her father-in-law every day. ‘I like George more and more’, he wrote to his daughter Lily. ‘There are no vast depths in her, but endless kindness and sympathy and I fancy a lot of practical talent.’
Later years and death In January 1922 Yeats started to show symptoms of irrationality and paranoia. He was looked after by John Sloan's wife, Dolly, and John Quinn found him a doctor who diagnosed endema of the lungs caused by a malfunctioning heart, and prescribed camphor as a stimulant and hypodermic injections as pain relief. Yeats wrote his last letter to his daughter Lily just forty-eight hours before his death. It is remarkably lucid and articulate, referring to a prospective marriage in the Pollexfen family, his in-laws, to whom he had long been attached. Yeats died of heart failure in his shabby boarding house in New York on 3 February 1922, aged eighty-three. His unfinished self-portrait stood beside his bed. A few hours after his death, a sculptor, Edmund J. Quinn, took his death-mask, which now belongs to the Yeats Society in Sligo. His funeral was held at the episcopal church of the Holy Apostles on 5 February, attended by 250 people, including the Irish consul and the New York representative of the provisional government in Dublin. John Quinn sent the unfinished self-portrait, with the deceased's letters and papers, to his son W. B. Yeats in Dublin. The papers are in the collection of W. B. Yeats's son Michael Butler Yeats (1921–2007). W. B. Yeats's daughter, the painter Anne Butler Yeats (qv), held some others. To save the trouble and expense of transporting the body back to Ireland, the Yeats family accepted an offer from the Foster family of a burial plot in the rural cemetery at Chestertown, a village in the Adirondack mountains, near Lake George in upper New York State. Incised on his simple gravestone is a Celtic cross with the monogram ‘IHS’. Eight weeks after Yeats's death, a memorial dinner was held in Petipas boarding house, attended by writers, playwrights, and artists such as George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri and John Sloan, and of course the collector John Quinn. Fifty years after Yeats's death, in 1972, the NGI held an exhibition of 138 of his paintings and drawings, with a catalogue by its then director, James White (1913–2003). The first international seminar on John Butler Yeats was held at Chestertown from 7 to 9 September 2004.