A Giant Reading signed 'JACK/B/YEATS' (lower right) and inscribed 'A GIANT/READING' (verso) oil on canvas 35.5 x 45.8 cm. (14 x 18 in.) Painted in 1942
PROVENANCE: With Victor Waddington Galleries, Dublin, where purchased by the family of the present owners in 1946
EXHIBITED: London Group, 1945
LITERATURE: Hilary Pyle, Jack B. Yeats, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Andre Deutsch, Vol.I, cat.no.533, p.489
A man and woman sit reading together. Behind them to the left a crowd of people are welcomed into a circus performance by a man in a top-hat who is partly obscured behind a large deep red curtain. The scene appears to take place inside a large tent. The 'giant' is attired in a formal black top hat and suit. He is extremely tall and thin and is seated on an elaborate bench which is raised on a platform. Beside him to the right is propped up a sign declaring the legend 'Tallest Man Alive'. Other signs are visible at his feet and at those of his companion, a blonde woman who holds an image of herself in her hand. The two are clearly working for a travelling circus as living exhibits or freaks. Here they take a break from their show. Their relaxed intimacy is at odds with the public space in which they are seated and to which the signs and the crowds allude.
One of the origins of the unusual subject lies in a sketch of Barnum's circus which Yeats visited in Torquay in July 1899. His sketchbook records a 'Giant Spelling' in which a tall figure of an Arab is shown reading a book (Y1/JY/1/1/21/26, Jack B. Yeats Archive, National Gallery of Ireland). Behind him is depicted the same blonde haired woman we see in the much later painting. While A Giant Reading is not directly based on the 1899 sketch Yeats undoubtedly referred to this drawing as an aide memoire in his portrayal of the circus figures. The woman is notable for her pale complexion and her remarkable blonde curly hair. She is reminiscent of photographs of Albinos who worked in Barnum's as part of the side-shows.
The painting can be connected to Yeats's other paintings of circuses in which he focuses on the performer at rest, caught in an unexpected moment of repose. Like the contemporary, This Grand conversation was under the rose, (1943, National Gallery of Ireland), Yeats shows two ostensibly different performers brought together by the unconventional way in which they make their living. The otherworldly nature of their lives is expressed through the dominant tones of blue and green throughout the composition but most notably in the walls and ceiling of the ambiguous tent in which the scene takes place. Clearly the artist sees beyond the unusual appearance of the two characters to their evident normality. Painted in the early years of World War 2 when European culture laid such stress on ethnic and biological differences, A Giant Reading draws attention to a moment of common humanity in the midst of an increasingly regimented society.
We are grateful to Dr Róisín Kennedy for compiling this catalogue entry.