America’s Eye: Irish Paintings from the Collection of Brian P. Burns
January 26–May 19, 1996
America’s Eye demonstrates the powerful and evolving role of the diaspora in Ireland and America. Brian P. Burns’s leadership role in collecting and preserving Ireland’s cultural heritage reverses older patterns of discrimination that denied his nineteenth-century ancestors the opportunities of his generation. The trajectory of emigrants who initially moved from impoverished lives in their homeland to economic and social marginalization in their adopted nation culminates in Mr. Burn’s success in America and his expression of social and cultural responsibility toward Ireland. America’s Eye, and the publication of an exhibition catalogue, including a collection of interdisciplinary essays in the field of Irish Studies, attest to the way in which the visual arts, too often viewed as irrelevant to the lives of ordinary Irish men and women, can help uncover their history.
Comprising works from approximately 35 artists, including Jack B. Yeats, Walter Chetwood-Aiken, William Orpen, Walter Osborne, and Sean Keating, the exhibition displays about 50 paintings. Rather than enter into the current debate that locates the source of the nation’s post-Famine visual art either in nationalism or in international Modernism, the curators of this exhibition propose a less politicized definition. The works in this collection, produced in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, are designated Irish for a variety of reasons. Most frequently their creators were Irish-born, but some, Erskine Nichol or H. Robertson Craig, for example, were foreign-born painters who produced considerable work in Ireland. The paintings generally depict Irish subjects—landscapes, individual or group portraits, interiors, genre scenes, still lifes—but several Irish artists like Frank O’Meara, Roderic O’Conor, and John Lavery, chose settings in Paris, Brittany, Antwerp, or even Tangiers. The Irish art in America’s Eye, then, is a loosely defined entity created by men and women who were either born in or produced a significant body of work in Ireland.