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Gravestone of John Butler Yeats in Chestertown

Gravestone of John Butler Yeats in Chestertown

The Yeats Who’s Buried in Chestertown

By James H. Miller

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Portrait artist John Butler Yeats, father of the Irish poet William B. Yeats, never made it to the Adirondacks—the closest he is said to have come is the Catskills. Yet the artist, far from any next of kin, is buried in the Rural Cemetery in Chestertown, New York, 20 minutes from Lake George. His Adirondack granite headstone, overlooking Route 9, is engraved with the Celtic Cross, as well as a pithy inscription composed by his daughter, Lily Yeats.

John Yeats died on February 3, 1922 in New York City. His family declined to have the body sent back to Ireland, and he was buried the following July in Chestertown. The only people present at the service were Jeanne Robert Foster and a Methodist minister. Foster, a poet born in Johnsburg, chose the site for her friend of 11 years, believing that it closely resembled the Irish countryside. It was the burial site of her family, and in 1970, she was laid to rest there as well.

John Butler Yeats, self portrait

John Butler Yeats, self portrait

For John Yeats to have such a curiously obscure resting place is sadly in keeping with his capricious life. He never could make his mark as an artist. He failed miserably to support his family and was resented by them for it. He roamed between Ireland and England, stubbornly self-centered and impractical. Then, he expatriated himself physically, and to some degree emotionally, from Europe and his family.

When he was 68 years old, J. B. Yeats left Ireland for New York City. “He always believed success was waiting for him in a city other than the one he was living in,” writes his biographer William M. Murphey. He lived alone in a modest studio apartment and took his meals at a boarding house. While he made promises to return to Ireland, he managed to always find a reason—or, more precisely, an excuse—to remain in the glitter of New York.

He was hoping for commissions, but he had other reasons not to return to Ireland. In New York, John quickly earned celebrity as a shrewd conversationalist in intellectual society, and enjoyed a torrent of invitations to parties at lavish country clubs and manors. It was in these circles that he became friends with Jeanne Robert Foster, Ashcan School painters like John French Sloan, and poets like Conrad Aiken. According to William Murphey, “dining out with John Butler Yeats became almost a required activity for New York’s literary and artistic world.”

For all his accomplishments as a socialite, however, John did not have as much success as a painter. He had a self-defeating nature; he was fairly quixotic and a poor self-promoter. Worst of all, he was a perfectionist. He would endlessly redo, paint over, and redo again. According to Murphey, he would begin “a painting in the spring and as the season wore on added the buds and leaves to what had been bare trees, then covered them over with the rich foliage of summer, painted the green out as fall came, and ended up with a landscape of snow.” And on the scattered occasions that he secured a portrait commission, he would ask his subject sit for an excruciating period of time until they couldn’t take it anymore. The commission would be withdrawn and the portrait left unfinished.

Jeanne Robert Foster by John Butler Yeats

Jeanne Robert Foster by John Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats saw this weakness in his father and undoubtedly learned from it. “It is this infirmity of will which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career,” he wrote to his father’s friend, John Quinn, the Irish-American art collector. “He even hates the sign of will in others. It used to cause quarrels between me and him, for the qualities which I thought necessary to success in art or in life seemed to him ‘egotism’ or ‘selfishness’ or ‘brutality.’”

Yet John Yeats could not let go of his unreasonable ideas. “Every artist,” he once wrote, “knows how difficult it is to make up one’s mind that a picture is finished, for a picture is never finished, since it is never perfect, and perfection is the artist’s goal.”

That hopeless goal had painful consequences for the Yeats family. John stooped his wife, Susan Pollexfen Yeats, and their four children—Lily, Lollie, William, and Jack Yeats—into poverty. John sporadically brought home money as a landlord, but he could never fulfill, or even acknowledge, his obligations to his family. He depended on the charity of his friends, in desperate times his own daughters, and later—and more frequently—his successful son, William.

In 1908, eight years after his wife died—partly from the strain of her husband’s constant moves between London and Dublin—John visited New York City with his daughter Lily, and betting on new artistic success, decided to never leave.

However, the trouble was never the city John lived in, it was himself. For 11 of the 14 years that he lived in New York, John worked on a self-portrait commissioned by John Quinn, who, tactlessly, had not attached a deadline. Of course, his self-portrait had to be perfect, and John spent years before the mirror striving to make it so. But it was in vain.

“He continually eludes me, the fault not in him but in myself,” John wrote to William of the self-portrait. “I may be found some day dead at the foot of that mirror, after which the ghost will never be seen of mortal. Poor painter, poor ghost.”

When he died shortly before his 83rd birthday in his New York apartment with Jeanne Foster and John Quinn at his bedside, the unfinished self-portrait stood near his feet. It is sadly ironic that he could not finish a portrait of man who could not finish anything; and that he tried to make a perfect painting of a man who was so imperfect. “The self-portrait could never be finished, because the ever developing John Butler Yeats was never finished,” as Murphey writes.

 Lily Yeats adored her father despite his innumerable faults. On the Chestertown headstone is her inscription, which reaffirms, despite everything, that John Butler Yeats was indeed a “painter”: “In Remembrance of John Butler Yeats of Dublin, Ireland. Painter and Writer. Born in Ireland, Mar. 16, 1839. Died in N.Y. City Feb. 3, 1922.”

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