The Art Institute's exhibition of 18th century Irish art opened on St. Patrick's Day, but you won't find many depictions of the holiday's eponymous saint in the collection, aside from a few pitchers (which probably never held green beer) bearing his likeness. Inspired by a proposal from art historian Desmond Fitzgerald, "Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840" explores a period of time in which the Emerald Isle came into its own as a cultural and commercial hub.
Featuring more than 300 items spread throughout ten distinct galleries, visitors will find plenty of pastoral paintings of the countryside and regal portraits of wealthy aristocrats. While pieces like a Gilbert Stuart portrait and a drawing of Dublin circa 1699 are impressive to behold, the decorative items on display often outshine their framed counterparts. Including ornately bound books, intricate silver work and carved mahogany furniture, the exhibit’s array of luxury items harken back to a time when artful precision was a hallmark of handcrafted goods.
The varied collection serves as celebration of Ireland’s natural beauty and commercial prowess, demonstrating how the country’s picturesque vistas and bustling trade routes inspired artists and craftsmen alike. Unfortunately, the wide-ranging exhibition often suffers from a lack of focus and cohesion, attempting to string together disparate pieces based only on the shared nationality of their creators and subjects. In their attempt to pinpoint the crossroads of 18th century art and design while assembling one of the largest displays of Irish art, the curators present a somewhat overwhelming survey of a country teeming with creative talent.