Jack B. Yeats possessed a strong and individual talent, while at the time time projecting a tough and down-to-earth image of Irishness. He came from a note worthy Sligo family, whose members included his father, John Butler Yeats, a barrister-turned-portraitist, and his brother W.B. Yeats, the famous poet. Much of Jack Yeats' early life was spent in England, but he returned to Ireland in 1900 and developed a highly expressive style based on thick, freely applied paint. Much of his subject matter was taken from fairs, horse-races and other ordinarly but vigorous aspects of Irish life, but he also painted many pictures in which individuals seem set apart, wrapped in solitude and pondering their destinies.
Yeats is now recognized as the greatest Irish painter of the 20th century, but for much of his lifetime the reputations of Sir John Lavery and Sir William Orpen stood higher. They became such durable figures in the British art establishment that their Irishness is often ignored. Their careers were curiously similar, culminating in knighthoods for their work as official war artists during the conflict of 1914-18. Both were formidably gifted and painted some good pictures, but failed to achieve the power and depth of which seemed capable; the cultural and social nature in which they moved, bringing lucrative commissions for society portraits, has often been blamed, possibly unjustly. Their contemporary Paul Henry was a more distinctively national artist in taking his subjects from the West of Ireland, although his simplified forms and colours had affinities with British commercial art (book-covers and posters) of the inter-war period.
European modernism was being introduced into Ireland by two closely associated women artists, Mainie Jellett and Evie Hones. Jellett moved from Cubism to pure abstraction, but Hone became best known for her work in stained glass.
For several decades more, the majority of Irish artists continued to work in semi-academic styles, concentrating on genre, landscape and patriotic subjects. Mirroring Irish society, Irish artists were slow to challenge established institutions. The first breakaway exhibiting society, the Irish exhibition of Living Art, was not founded until 1943 by Jellett, Hone and Louis Le Brocquy and others, long after similar rebellions in most European countries. Later Irish artists responded to the currents and counter-currents of modernity, and the painter William Scott and Sculptor F.E. McWilliam were among those who achieved an international reputation.