Many of the recent major exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago have been retrospectives of individuals: Matisse, Lichtenstein, Picasso, Magritte. However, the current show takes a look at an epoch of an entire country. Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design examines the aesthetic output of the Emerald Isle from 1690 to 1840. At first glance, this seems a strange choice, for Ireland is not historically important to art history as France, Italy, and Japan are, but a tour through the galleries reveals many unimagined delights and powerful statements.
A Moment in Irish History
The Ireland exhibition reflects a time of intense nationalism. Ireland spent the eighteenth century rising and thriving as part of the British Empire until sectarian pressures culminated in an unsuccessful 1798 rebellion. Two years later, the Act of Union put an end to the Irish Parliament and folded the country into the United Kingdom. However, the cultural momentum of establishing an identity and aiming for independence surged forward until the Potato Famine, and how this momentum manifested itself in all the arts is reflected in the myriad displays.
The crossroads referred to in the title are, to this observer, a fusion of the heights of Western civilization and the island’s singular Celtic heritage. This heritage is obviously reflected in the clairseach, the harp that fuses classical design with distinct tradition to become a symbol of the people, but it emerges in other ways. Irish portraiture, for instance, is significantly different from the contemporary standard-setters of Gainsborough and Reynolds in Britain; while their work was somewhat muted, the Irish trade in bright colors, especially flaming reds and lavish blues and greens that anticipate the Pre-Raphaelites.
The portraits are displayed in the opening, followed by a suite of rooms dedicated to the decorative arts. Alongside the expected harps and architectural sketches, there are magnificent dresses and quilts, pottery from the World’s End company, and original Waterford crystal. Even the most indistinct of this work shows a care that reflects ambition: Ireland attempting to cement its place among other commercial nations and highlighting their own attributes, especially in the country life scenes depicted on World’s End’s imitation Delftware.
More impressive than all of these are the Irish books. Personal bookbindings, ranging from early version of the appointment calendar for nobility to table-sized editions of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer for the Parliamentary sessions, boast some of the most gorgeous craftsmanship imaginable. Working primarily with leather and gold, the Irish bookbinders’ preferred method was to create patterns of images (including ones based on pressed insects) repeating in different shades of color, then lining the pages with the finest leaf. The result are books that look too precious to even want to open, leaving dreams of what calligraphy or type was contained within.
The Quintessence of the Art
All of the above is almost forgotten after touring the final galleries and witnessing the art of the Irish landscape. I cannot speak to what the greatest or most sought-after examples of this art are, but in looking at the four monumental canvases of Thomas Roberts, I believed I found the quintessential examples of landscape painting.
Thomas Roberts was the most sought-after painter of his time, and he displayed his mastery at a very young age. This was fortuitous, for he died of consumption at age 29 in 1778 having not finished a six-painting commission by the Duke of Leinster of scenes from his Carton demense. What Roberts left behind was not photographic realism but an idealism fully grounded in reality. The horizon lines, the patterns of the sky, the shape of hills, the contours of grass and rivers, and even the humans inserted into the scenes and depicted as working or strolling all seem to be just where they should be, as if the perfect moment that could occur in the location had been captured.
Robarts was not the only Irish landscape painter of note, and ultimately he may not have been the most important. Jonathan Fisher executed one of the largest paintings in the exhibition, the 1770 View of the Lakes and Mountains of Killarney. It is a wondrous depiction mixing Elysian splendor with clouds that suggest quiet power afoot. But what startles in the painting is in the bottom right-hand corner, as Fisher paints what appears to be himself, working at a canvas as someone brings him lunch. Plein air was not an accepted technique at the time, so Fisher may have been one of the first to ever utilize it.
This little detail speaks volumes to me about the ultimate meaning of the exhibit. Fisher’s potential exploration of new artistic means was done in the service of glorifying Ireland within an established tradition, and his View taken together with Roberts’s paintings are enough to make anyone want to catch a flight to Dublin and see such beauty themselves. In these paintings and in their more practical works, the Irish of this “crossroads” period were a culture determined to assert itself as a force to consider in the world, as a people wanting to make their own contributions to humanity, and seeing the quantity and variety of this contribution is inspirational.
Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840 will be at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 7th. The museum cafes sell pints of Guinness for post-show contemplation. Pictures from the Chicago Tribune, Pym’s Gallery, and Architectural Digest.