A chronicler of the humble dignity of everyday life

Art in focus: Jack B Yeats’s 'Men of Destiny' can accommodate a range of thematic concerns

'Men of Destiny'. A group of men who are tying up a fishing boat on the shore at the end of a day. A masted fishing boat on the water. The setting sun on the horizon. – Jack B Yeats, 'Men of Destiny', 1946. © Estate of Jack B Yeats, DACS London/IVARO Dublin, 2017

'Men of Destiny'. A group of men who are tying up a fishing boat on the shore at the end of a day. A masted fishing boat on the water. The setting sun on the horizon. – Jack B Yeats, 'Men of Destiny', 1946. © Estate of Jack B Yeats, DACS London/IVARO Dublin, 2017

 

What is it?
Men of Destiny was painted by Jack B Yeats (1871-1957) in 1946. In it, two men, apparently just disembarked from a small, masted vessel on the shore behind them, stroll towards us, the viewers, while absorbed in conversation. Their manner is easy, relaxed. A third man in the background is turning to follow.

The scene is aglow with the fiery rays of the setting sun, lending the figures, and the ground they walk on, a hallowed, heightened air, despite the casual mood.

Hilary Pyle sees it as Sligo fishermen coming ashore at Rosses Point, recalled from Yeats’s youth but, as she points out, the nature of the work, the title and the historical moment widen the frame of reference. The men of destiny might be those who fought for Irish independence, especially given the pending Republic of Ireland Act 1948, the realisation of the republican dream.

The second World War had recently ended. As Yeats was very well aware, populations were in motion, and the painting can be seen as saluting the quiet heroism of ordinary people caught up in the currents of history. Brian O’Doherty suggests they could be arriving to start a new life. Its power lies in the fact that it comfortably accommodates such a generous range of thematic concerns.

How was it done?
From the mid-1920s onwards, Yeats became increasingly free in his use of paint, as a physical substance and in terms of colour, which was set free from a purely naturalistic task. Yet the illustrator’s precision of earlier years persists in the expressive accuracy of his brush strokes: the figures in the painting are nothing more than bold darts and scrapes and twists of pigment mixing with pigment, but all the telling details – each individual stance and gesture and movement – come across vividly and unmistakably.

Where can I see it?
Usually, Men of Destiny resides in the National Gallery of Ireland but, until April 22nd, 2018, it is on view at the Model in Sligo with another Yeats painting, The Last Dawn but One (1948), which features circus performers striking camp.  They were the point of departure for curator Emer McGarry’s exhibition Turbulence, which also features works by a number of contemporary artists dealing with displacement and migration in the world today.

Is it typical of the artist’s work?
Men of Destiny is a very fine example of late Yeats, and it is not untypical in its allegorical richness and freedom. A great pictorial dramatist – he also wrote plays – throughout his life he developed and returned to a core repertoires of motifs and settings including the circus and fairground, the theatre and literature, the everyday life of both city and country people. Hilary Pyle noticed similarities between Men of Destiny and another 1946 painting, Two Travellers. A larger composition, in the Tate collection, it observes the chance meeting of “two tramps” in a peninsular landscape. It could almost be the starting point of Waiting For Godot, though Beckett cited another pictorial source, a moonlit scene by Caspar David Friedrich.

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