Two Irish Artists by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

It is unjust to an artist to write on the spur of the moment of his work–of the just seen picture which pleases or displeases. For what instantly delights the eye may never win its way into the heart, and what repels at first may steal later on into the understanding, and find its interpretation in a deeper mood. The final test of a picture, or of any work of art, is its power of enduring charm. There are many circles in the Paradise of Beautiful Memories, and half unconsciously, but with a justice, we at last place each in its hierarchy, remote or near to the centre of our being; and I propose here rather to speak of the impression left in my memory after seeing the work of Yeats and Hone for many years, than to describe in detail the pictures–some new, some familiar–which by a happy thought have been gathered together for exhibition. To tell an artist that you remember his pictures with love after many years is the highest praise you can give him; and to distinguish the impression produced from others is a pleasure I am glad to be here allowed.

An artist like Mr. Yeats, whose main work has been in portraiture, must often find himself before sitters with whom he has little sympathy, and we all expect to find portraits which do not interest us, because the interpreter has been at fault, and has failed in his vision. With the born craftsman, who always gives us beautiful brushwork, we do not expect these inequalities, but with Mr. Yeats technical power is not the most prominent characteristic. He broods or dreams over his sitters, and his meditation always tends to the discovery of some spiritual or intellectual life in them, or some hidden charm in the nature, or something to love; and if he finds what he seeks, we are sure, not always of a complete picture, but of a poetic illumination, a revelation of character, a secret sweetness for which we forgive the weakness or indecision manifest here and there, and which are relics of the hours before the final surety was attained.

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I do not know what Mr. Yeats’ philosophy of life is, but in his work he has been over-mastered by the spirit of his race, and he belongs to those who from the earliest dawn of Ireland have sought for the Heart’s Desire, and who have refined away the world, until only fragments remained to them. They have not accepted life as it is, and Mr. Yeats could not paint like Reynolds or Romney the beauty of every day in its best attire. He is like the Irish poets who have rarely left a complete description of women, but who speak of some transitory motion or fragile charm–“a thin palm like foam of the sea,” “a white body,” or in such vague phrases, until it seems a spirit is praised and not flesh and blood. I remember the faces of women and children in his pictures where everything is blurred or obscured, save faces which have a nameless charm. They look at you with long-remembered glances out of the brooding hour of twilight, out of reverie and dream. It is the hidden heart which looks out, and we love these women and children for this, for surely the heart’s desire is its own secret.

His portraits of men have kindred qualities, and the magnificent picture of John O’Leary shows him at his best. It is itself a symbol of the movement of which O’Leary was the last great representative. The stately patriarchal head of the old chief is the head of the idealist, so sure of his own truth that he must act, and, if needs be, become the martyr for his ideal. But the delicate hands are not the hands of an empire-breaker. This portrait will probably find its last resting-place in the National Gallery, where, with a curious irony, the Government places the portraits of the dead rebels who gave its statesmen many an anxious day and many a nightmare; and so it will go on, perhaps, until the contemplation of these pictures inspires some boy with an equal or better head and a stronger hand, and then–.

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But to return to Mr. Yeats. Some earlier pictures show him attempting to paint directly the ideal world of romance and poetry; yet interesting as these are, they do not convey the same impression of mystery as the pictures of today. Indeed, the light seen behind or through a veil is always more suggestive than the unveiled light. It may be that the spirit is a formless breath which pervades form, and it is better revealed as a light in the eyes, as a brooding expression, than by the choice of ancient days and other-world subjects, where the shapes can be molded to ideal forms by the artist’s will. However it is, it is certain that Millet, the realist, is more spiritual than Moreau or Burne-Jones for all their archaic design; and Mr. Yeats, who, as his King Goll shows, might have been a great romantic painter, has probably chosen wisely, and has painted more memorable pictures than if he had gone back to the fairyland of Celtic mythology.

To turn from Yeats to Hone is to turn from the lighted hearth to the wilderness. Humanity is very far away, or is huddled up under immense skies, where it seems of less importance than the rocks. The earth on which men have lived, where the work of their hand is evident, with all the sentiment of the presence of man, with smoke arising from numberless homes, is foreign to Mr. Hone. The monsters of the primeval world might sprawl on the rocks, for all the evidence of lapse of time since their day, in many of his pictures. He, too, has refined away his world until only fragments of the earth remain to him where he can dream in; and these are waste places, where the salt of the sea is in the wind, and the skies are gray and vapor-laden, or the loneliness of dim twilights are over level sands. Whatever else he paints is devoid of its proper interest, for he seems to impose on the cattle in the fields and on the habitable places a sentiment alien to their nature. He has a mind with but one impressive mood, and his spirit is never kindled, save in the society where none intrude; but in his own domain he is a master, and is always sure of himself and his effect. There is no tentative, undecisive brushwork, such as we often see in the subtle search for the unrevealed, which makes or mars Mr. Yeats’ work. He is at home in his peculiar world, while the other is always seeking for it.

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“A Sunset on Malahide Sands” shows a greater intensity than is usual even in Mr. Hone’s work. There is something thrilling in this twilight trembling over the deserted world. Philosophies may prove very well in the lecture-room, says Whitman, and not prove at all under the sky and stars. Pictures likewise may seem beautiful in a gallery, yet look thin and unreal where, with a turn of the head, one could look out at the pictures created hour after hour by the Master of the Beautiful; but there is some magic in this vision made up of elemental light, darkness, and loneliness, and we feel awed as if we knew the Spirit was hidden in His works. But primitive as this peculiar world is, and remote from humanity, it is just here we find a human revelation; for is not all art a symbol of the creative mind, and if we were wise enough we would understand that in art the light on every cloud, and the clear spaces above the cloud, and the shadows of the earth beneath are made out of the lights, infinitudes, and shadows of the soul, and are selected from nature because of some correspondence, unconscious or half felt. But these things belong more to the psychology of the artist mind than to the appreciation of its work. I have said enough, I hope, to attract to the work of these artists, in a mood of true understanding, those who would like to believe in the existence in Ireland of a genuine art. For ignored and uncared for as art is, we have some names to be proud of, and of these Mr. Yeats and Mr. Hone are foremost.

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1902

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