Art auction: Emotive work shows artist’s fascination with horse-human relationship

Until We Meet Again, by Jack Butler Yeats, R.H.A. (1871-1957).
Until We Meet Again, by Jack Butler Yeats, R.H.A. (1871-1957). © Christie’s

The enigmatic relationship between horse and human is one that fascinated Jack Butler Yeats throughout his career as an artist. Reared in the Irish countryside, he credited his love for animals, especially the horse, to his rural upbringing in Sligo.

One such work paying tribute to that relationship, Until We Meet Again, is being sold at Christie’s in London on March 1. It was bought by its previous owner, Oliver Chesterton, in London in 1950, and was sold to its present owner in 2013. It is expected to fetch between £500,000 and £800,000 ($US700,000- $1.1 million; $NZ960,000-$1.5m) at Christie’s Modern British Art Evening Sale.

The oil on canvas work was painted in 1949, and is said to personify his expressionistic style of the late 1940s when Yeats created some of his most sought-after paintings.

Until We Meet Again depicts a quiet moment of intimacy between the male figure and his equine companion. The artist has chosen to focus in on the subject matter and thus incorporate the viewer closely into the pictorial space. This proximity not only grants an added sense of tenderness but lends a more abstract quality to the painting. Yeats crops his composition so that it focuses exclusively upon the head and shoulders of the man – who has partially turned away from the viewer – and the horse’s head, as they face one another. Behind the figure is a loosely depicted landscape, with suggestions of the sea in the middle distance.

It has been suggested that the wealth of emotion in the gestures and expressions within this picture are representative of the reflections on mortality of an ageing artist, affected by the death of his wife, Cottie, who died in 1947, and the death of his brother and sister in 1948 and 1949 respectively, as well as by the war which had ended only a few years earlier. The title of this painting, Until We Meet Again, may be a further indication of this.

Until We Meet Again can be seen as a metaphor of the deep spiritual kinship that exists between horse and man, at the meeting point of land and ocean, looking past the material realm of the every day to a world beyond where they can be reunited.

In her book,  Yeats, Portrait of an Artistic Family (1997, p. 260), author Hilary Pyle said: “As he grew older, Yeats’ landscapes became progressively more visionary, so that earth, water, air and light seemed all to reach some metaphysical plane where the physical world is allied with the heavenly. The landscapes are still recognisably Irish in their colouring, and in their changeable weather … But emotionally Yeats seemed to gather up the countryside which he had studied in detail as a young man, and transform through a personal ecstasy this land he loved so deeply.”

• Update: Until We Meet Again sold for £598,500.

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