John Butler Yeats, Irish artist and the father of William Butler Yeats, Lily Yeats, Elizabeth Corbett Yeats and Jack Butler Yeats, dies in New York City on February 3, 1922. The National Gallery of Ireland holds a number of his portraits in oil and works on paper, including one of his portraits of his son William, painted in 1900. His portrait of John O’Leary (1904) is considered his masterpiece.
Yeats is born on March 16, 1839 in Lawrencetown, County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland. His parents are William Butler Yeats (1806–1862) and Jane Grace Corbert. He is the eldest of nine children. Educated in Trinity College Dublin and a member of the University Philosophical Society, Yeats begins his career as a lawyer and junior assistant briefly with Isaac Butt before he takes up painting in 1867 and studies at the Heatherley School of Fine Art.
Yeats marries Susan Pollexfen (13 July 1841 – 3 January 1900) on September 10, 1863 at St. John’s Church in Sligo. Susan Yeats is dismayed when her husband abandons the study of law to become an artist. She is described as a “shadowy figure” who goes “quietly, pitifully, mad.” They have six children: William Butler Yeats, Susan Mary “Lily” Yeats, Elizabeth Corbett “Lolly” Yeats, Robert Corbet Yeats, John “Jack” Butler Yeats and Jane Grace Yeats.
There are few records of his sales, so there is no catalogue of his work in private collections. It is possible that some of his early work may have been destroyed by fire in World War II. It is clear that he has no trouble getting commissions as his sketches and oils are found in private homes in Ireland, England and the United States. His later portraits show great sensitivity to the sitter. However, he is a poor businessman and is never financially secure. He moves frequently and shifts several times between England and Ireland.
In 1907, at the age of 68, he travels to New York aboard the RMS Campania, with his daughter Lily, and never returns to Ireland. In October 1909 he moves into his final home, a boarding house run by the Petitpas sisters which is located at 317 West Twenty-Ninth Street. In New York, he is friendly with members of the Ashcan School of painters.
John Butler Yeats dies in the boarding house on February 3, 1922. Edmund Quinn makes a death mask which is now in the collection of the Yeats Society in Sligo. Yeats is buried in Chestertown Rural Cemetery in Chestertown, New York, next to his friend, Jeanne Robert Foster.