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John Butler Yeats graduated from Dublin's Trinity College in 1862. He then studied law at King's Inns and was admitted to the bar in 1866.
In 1867, he ended his career as a barrister to pursue his life-long interest in drawing at Heatherley's Art School in London. Yeats went on to become a talented and well-known, albeit moderately successful, portrait painter, primarily of Irish writers and prominent people in the theatre.
Yeats was also the father of four artistic children. Among them were William Butler Yeats, Irelandís most famous poet and Jack Butler Yeats, the painter and illustrator who holds the title of Irelandís most famous and most expensive artist.
In December 1907 Yeats accompanied his eldest daughter, Susan Mary Yeats, to an embroidery exhibition in New York City for what was intended as a short visit. However, Yeats remained there for the following 14 years and never returned to Dublin.
In New York, Yeats continued to paint portraits for commissions as well as for friends and himself. John B Yeats wrote essays for Harperís Weekly, which were collected in 'Essays Irish and American', whilst his autobiography, 'Early Memories: A Chapter of Autobiography' was published posthumously. The essays were on subjects that included art, Irish issues and women. He was also a very competent public speaker.
Within his circle of artistic friends in New York, Yeats was known as an exceptional conversationalist. During this time he nurtured friendships with Martha Fletcher Bellinger, the writer Van Wyck Brooks, Mary Tower Lapsley Caughey, the miniature painter Eulabee Dix, the painter John Sloan and his wife Dolly Ann Squire, the lawyer and art patron, John Quinn. Yeats maintained contact with his family in Europe and friends in America through extensive correspondence.