John Butler Yeats, Irish, 1839-1922
Title: Portrait of John O'Leary (1830-1907), Nationalist and Journalist
Date: 1904
Medium: Oil on canvas
112 x 87 cm
Signed: upper right: J.B. Yeats 1904
Credit Line: Presented, Mr C. Sullivan, in memory of Mr J. Quinn, 1926
Object Number: NGI.869
DescriptionTemperamentally unsuited to the demands of society portraiture, Yeats was drawn to sitters with whom he was personally acquainted. The familiarity that he preferred was clearly communicated through many of his penetrating pencil studies and his finest portraits in oil. This portrait demonstrates Yeats’s ability to transpose onto a work on canvas the sensitivity that characterised his drawings. He was evidently comfortable with his subject, having painted him with similar success twice before. The passage of time has left O’Leary gaunt and frail, but he bears an intense expression similar to that which Yeats captured in his first portrait of the man 20 years earlier. Though Yeats’s use of colour is conventional, his loose brushwork and prominent signature indicate a familiarity with modern techniques and tendencies.
Financial officer for the revolutionary movement and editor of the Fenian newspaper the Irish People, O’Leary was tried for treason-felony in 1865 and sentenced to 20 years penal servitude. Released after six years in prison, he spent the next 14 in exile in France. Back in Dublin, he established a literary salon at his home, where he entertained many of Ireland’s literary luminaries and prodigies including William Butler Yeats, the artist’s son, over whom he exercised a profound influence.

March 2016

ProvenanceCommisioned, John Quinn; presented, Mr C. Sullivan, in memory of Mr J. Quinn, New York, 1926
Exhibition HistoryRoyal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, 1887

John B. Yeats and Nathaniel Hone, Royal Society of Antiquaries, Dublin, 1901

Loan Collection of Irish Painters, Guildhall, London, 1904

Spring & Autumn Exhibitions, Independent Artists, New York, 1910

Ierse Schilders der 19e en 20e eeuw, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1951

W.B. Yeats: Images of a Poet, Manchester; Dublin, 1961

Centenary Exhibition, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, October - December 1964

W.B. Yeats: A Centenary Exhibition, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 1965

Cuimhneachán 1916, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 1966

Jack B. Yeats and his Family, Sligo; Dublin, 1971

John Butler Yeats and the Irish Renaissance, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 1972

50th Anniversary of John Butler Yeats' Death, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 30 November 1972

Ireland's Literary Renaissance: 20th Century Portraits, Chicago, 1980
Label TextYeats painted three portraits of O’Leary, the famous nationalist and intellectual. An admirer of the Fenian leader James Stephens, O’Leary was arrested in Dublin in 1865 in response to revolutionary views he published in the newspaper he edited. After five years in prison, he was released on condition that he remained exiled from Ireland until the original sentence of twenty years had expired. When he eventually returned to Dublin, he was welcomed into the Contemporary Club, a pro-Home Rule society, centre of liberal, nationalist and creative thought, where he met John Butler Yeats and others.

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