John Butler Yeats
Irish Portrait Artist. Biography, Paintings.

John Butler Yeats RHA (1839-1922)

The Irish portrait painter and illustrator John Butler Yeats was born in County Down in 1839. He was the father of the painter Jack Butler Yeats, and the famous poet WB Yeats.

Best known for his portrait of the young WB Yeats - one of several of his paintings in the Yeats museum in the National Gallery of Ireland - his masterpiece is generally considered to be his portrait of John O'Leary (1904).

John Yeats was educated in Trinity College Dublin and started a career as a barrister. When he was 23, his father died leaving him a small estate in County Kildare.


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In 1863 he married Susan Pollexfen and took up residence at 5 Sandymount Avenue Dublin, where WB Yeats was born in 1865. In 1867, he switched from law to art and moved to London, which which played havoc with his financial position. Indeed, he remained financially insecure for most of his life, moving house frequently and switching several times between England and Ireland, surviving on commissions for portraits and illustrations.

Jack B Yeats his famous artist son was born in 1871.

Despite his poor business acumen, John Yeats was a master of portrait art, being compared by one critic to Rembrandt the Dutch Old Master, and exhibited at the Royal Academy (RA) and regularly at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), becoming a full member in 1892. He was one of the painters commissioned by Sir Hugh Lane to paint portraits of distinguished Irishmen.


He was also a powerful personality, with an impressive figure, a musical voice and a capitivating speaker and conversationalist.

At the age of 69, a few years after the death of his wife, John Yeats settled in New York, remaining there after a visit with his daughter Lily, and developed links with members of the Ashcan School of painters.

He is buried in Chestertown Rural Cemetery in Chestertown, New York. John Yeats' paintings and drawings appear in public and private collections in Ireland, the UK and the USA.

Most Expensive Work by John Butler Yeats

The auction record for a work by John Butler Yeats was set in 2010, when his oil painting, entitled A Garden In a City at Night, was sold at Sotheby's, in London, for £121,250.

More Information About Visual Arts in Ireland

• For details of other portrait painters, see: Irish Artists: Paintings and Biographies.
• For more about portraitists like John Butler Yeats, see: Irish Art Guide.
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