Yeats initially painted in watercolour, but about 1906 he began painting regularly in oil. His early paintings were rather conservative in style. During the years of the Irish struggle for independence, Yeats began to acquire fame for his romantic and emotional, yet realistic, portrayals of urban and rural life in Ireland.
In the 1920s Yeats's painting style underwent a major change. He adopted a more colourful palette, and he began to paint with extremely free and loose brushstrokes. His subject matter included modern scenes of circuses, music halls, and horse races, moody landscapes of Ireland's west coast, and themes from Irish mythology.
After his death, critics often dismissed Yeats's work as irrelevant, but a 1971 exhibition of his paintings at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin helped to revive his reputation as an important artist. Yeats was also a writer, and his literary works—plays, novels, and poetry—are characterized by the same qualities of fantasy and colourful, haphazard expression that are apparent in his paintings.