Jack B. Yeats, Driftwood in a Cave

Jack B. Yeats (Irish, 1871–1957), Driftwood in a Cave, 1948, oil on canvas, 14 x 21 inches (canvas). Gift of the Donald and Marilyn Keough Foundation, 2018.005.003

Produced late in the artist’s career, Driftwood in a Cave shows all the vigor and expression of Yeats’s most accomplished work. He was born in London to an Irish portraitist and was sent back to County Sligo to be raised by his grandparents. He rejoined his family in England when he was 16 years old. By 1911 he was back in Ireland with his English wife. He was first an illustrator and didn’t take up oil painting until his 30s. It took him another twenty years to arrive at this bold, expressionistic style. By the time he painted Driftwood in a Cave, he had achieved a good measure of success and renown, although he had lost his wife and several members of his family and reportedly felt isolated.

In this scene, he focused on a solitary figure striding through the mouth of a cave toward the light with green waves lapping at the shore. The man is silhouetted against a pale sky daubed with bright yellow and thin, dry dashes of blue. The stark contrast between the dark interior and the bright sea heightens the tension. The brushstrokes are energetic, violent even, and the color harmonies of blue, mauve, and ochre hint at something sinister.

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