Driftwood in a Cave

Jack B. Yeats (Irish, 1871-1957), Driftwood in a Cave, 1948, Oil on canvas. Gift of the Donald and Marilyn Keough Foundation, 2018.005.003.


Who made it?

Jack B. Yeats is celebrated as one of Ireland’s great modern painters. Born in London in 1871, he and his family were enmeshed in the Irish literary and artistic revival happening in Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century. His father, John Butler Yeats, was a successful portrait painter, his brother was the renowned poet William Butler Yeats, and his sisters Lily and Elizabeth (Lolly) ran a cottage industry of embroidery and fine art printing in Dublin.

Yeats spent childhood living with his grandparents in County Sligo, and the people and traditions of the west of Ireland would populate his work throughout his career. The majority of his early works consist of pen-and-ink observational drawings of quintessential Irish scenes and characters, many of which were published in books and newspapers. He began to focus on oil painting around 1910 and from the mid-1920s on his compositions became more gestural in style while still exploring local themes. In his late work, Yeats’ paint handling became increasingly experimental and loose, and his subject matter explored broader themes of memory, time, and dreams.

What’s going on in this work?

A man clad in a long coat and tall hat strides out of the dark into a luminous void. Looking on from behind, we are left to imagine the views he sees— presumably the sea whose tides brought the driftwood strewn to either side—and the thoughts he is thinking. The stark frame created by the mouth of the cave focuses attention on the figure rather than on the details in the landscape, inviting us to read the scene metaphorically or in terms of personal experience.

The canvas is energized by unexpected streaks of cadmium yellow, red, and blue. Thick, energetic smears of paint create a sense of movement throughout, while paint scraped bare with a fingertip or a hard brush end delineates the figure. The title, Driftwood in a Cave, helps our eyes and mind organize the brushstrokes into a landscape—a cave opening onto a shoreline and clear sky. 

Take a closer look.

Click on the full image of Driftwood in a Cave above to see a larger version of the work. Look closely at the painting and use these questions to guide your looking. Share your thoughts with your family and friends virtually or with us by responding to this email.

  • Where is this person? What is he doing? What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What is the mood of this work? What do you see that makes you say that?
  • How would you describe the way this was painted? Quickly or slowly? Calmly or energetically? What do you see that makes you say that?

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About the Article:

Engage with the Snite Museum of Art by exploring their collection through background information and reflection questions. For more information on the collections, please visit the Snite Museum of Art website.

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June 18, 2020

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