It is unjust to an artist to write on the spur of the moment of his work–of the just seen picture which pleases or displeases. For what instantly delights the eye may never win its way into the heart, and what repels at first may steal later on into the understanding, and find its interpretation in a deeper mood. The final test of a picture, or of any work of art, is its power of enduring charm. There are many circles in the Paradise of Beautiful Memories, and half unconsciously, but with a justice, we at last place each in its hierarchy, remote or near to the centre of our being; and I propose here rather to speak of the impression left in my memory after seeing the work of Yeats and Hone for many years, than to describe in detail the pictures–some new, some familiar–which by a happy thought have been gathered together for exhibition. To tell an artist that you remember his pictures with love after many years is the highest praise you can give him; and to distinguish the impression produced from others is a pleasure I am glad to be here allowed.
An artist like Mr. Yeats, whose main work has been in portraiture, must often find himself before sitters with whom he has little sympathy, and we all expect to find portraits which do not interest us, because the interpreter has been at fault, and has failed in his vision. With the born craftsman, who always gives us beautiful brushwork, we do not expect these inequalities, but with Mr. Yeats technical power is not the most prominent characteristic. He broods or dreams over his sitters, and his meditation always tends to the discovery of some spiritual or intellectual life in them, or some hidden charm in the nature, or something to love; and if he finds what he seeks, we are sure, not always of a complete picture, but of a poetic illumination, a revelation of character, a secret sweetness for which we forgive the weakness or indecision manifest here and there, and which are relics of the hours before the final surety was attained.
I do not know what Mr. Yeats’ philosophy of life is, but in his work he has been over-mastered by the spirit of his race, and he belongs to those who from the earliest dawn of Ireland have sought for the Heart’s Desire, and who have refined away the world, until only fragments remained to them. They have not accepted life as it is, and Mr. Yeats could not paint like Reynolds or Romney the beauty of every day in its best attire. He is like the Irish poets who have rarely left a complete description of women, but who speak of some transitory motion or fragile charm–“a thin palm like foam of the sea,” “a white body,” or in such vague phrases, until it seems a spirit is praised and not flesh and blood. I remember the faces of women and children in his pictures where everything is blurred or obscured, save faces which have a nameless charm. They look at you with long-remembered glances out of the brooding hour of twilight, out of reverie and dream. It is the hidden heart which looks out, and we love these women and children for this, for surely the heart’s desire is its own secret.
His portraits of men have kindred qualities, and the magnificent picture of John O’Leary shows him at his best. It is itself a symbol of the movement of which O’Leary was the last great representative. The stately patriarchal head of the old chief is the head of the idealist, so sure of his own truth that he must act, and, if needs be, become the martyr for his ideal. But the delicate hands are not the hands of an empire-breaker. This portrait will probably find its last resting-place in the National Gallery, where, with a curious irony, the Government places the portraits of the dead rebels who gave its statesmen many an anxious day and many a nightmare; and so it will go on, perhaps, until the contemplation of these pictures inspires some boy with an equal or better head and a stronger hand, and then–.