The Liffey Swim, by Jack B Yeats

The Liffey Swim, by Jack B. Yeats (1923, 61cm x 91cm, oil on canvas)

I posted the above painting because I was reminded that today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jack Butler Yeats, brother of the poet William Butler Yeats. That in turn reminded me that a major exhibition of art by Jack B. Yeats opens at the National Gallery of Ireland on Saturday 4th September. I hope to squeeze in a visit before teaching starts.

Although it was a style he only started to experiment with around 1920, The Liffey Swim is clearly an Expressionist work – the unusual colour palette and texture of the paint are characteristics of that movement- but it also serves as an interesting bit of social history. The Liffey Swim is a regular event in Dublin (or was, in pre-Covid days) but only began in 1920 so it was fairly new when Yeats painted it. He captures the excited atmosphere surrounding the event by placing the viewer in the middle of a huge crowd struggling to get a good view, with the swimmers only shown in cursory detail. You see far more of the spectators than you do of the race!

There’s another interesting thing about this painting. It won a Silver Medal for Ireland in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. In fact it was Ireland’s first ever Olympic Medal, coming just a couple of years after independence. It may surprise you to learn that art competitions were a part of the Olympic Games from 1912 until 1948, as were competitions in music and literature. The 1924 Gold Medal for painting was won by an artist from Luxembourg called Jean Jacoby who specialised in sporting themes.

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