First, a word about the photographs here. I obviously don’t own anything photographed at the museum. They are included here simply as a way for me to share my impressions of my visit to the museum. I was happy to hear they allowed non-flash photography, because I like to include photos in my blogs. Also, I normally leave my photo editing to a minimum, but the photos here however, have been edited quite a bit. This is because the lighting in the museum is very dim, I didn’t use my flash, and most of the shots had to be taken at angles that distorted the image. So, I’ve adjusted for all that to try and get the best representation of what I actually saw. Please keep that in mind if something looks a little strange. 🙂
This museum was a surprise to me. I’m very lucky to have been to many museums around the world, and in each one I can say there has been one or two pieces on display that have left a lasting impression on me. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was different thought, in that my impression was most strongly of the woman who created this incredible gift to the city of Boston. It is of a woman with a very distinct eye for what is interesting, and who clearly appreciated art that encompassed darkness as well as light. There are layers of intensely personal stories here. As I wandered through the exhibition she personally curated, I thought how brilliant it was that a famous woman, accustomed to being seen through the eyes of others, and the society in which she was entrenched, ensured that her legacy would be presented exactly as she wanted, so that more than a century later when the newspapers and society gossips are no longer interpreting her motives, her distinct voice is heard alone.
Who was Isabella Stewart Gardner?
Isabella Stewart (1840-1924) was born in New York City and married Bostonian John Lowell Gardner Jr. in 1860. Isabella and John traveled throughout the world and had a strong appreciation for art, collecting items as they traveled. In 1891, Isabella’s father left her his fortune, and with her increased wealth, she began to accumulate an incredible art collection and developed plans to display it in a building built to her own specifications. Her museum originally opened in 1903 and was called Fenway Court. Today, the original building is expanded to include an additional wing that is home to contemporary and historical exhibitions, music programs, and Artist-in-Residence program and other partnerships. For me, the effect of the entire place is to make visitors feel they are part of the art community, rather than visitors allowed in for the day. I found that to be a very different feel for a museum than what I’m accustomed to.
The themes I noticed.
I have a specific way that I approach art museums, because I find it can get overwhelming to be presented with hundreds if not thousands of works to consider. If it is a museum that is located in a foreign city and I think it’s likely that I’ll only get one visit, I focus on finding a few specific works of art that the museum is known for, or that I feel I will personally find interesting. When I know that I can easily revisit a museum, my first visit is focused on gathering an overall impression of the collection, and I like to see what pieces are there that surprise me. That is the approach I took to my visit here.
The first thing I noticed about this collection is there were dark themes beautifully mixed in throughout. The painting El Jaleo, by John Singer Sargent, is one of the first you encounter on the first floor of the palace, and it’s my favorite work by the celebrated artist because while it’s striking at first glance, the closer you look the more interesting it becomes, and you don’t need a degree in art history to comprehend the deep humanity of it.
A painting by James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Battersea Reach is also quite striking, because at first it looks like nothing but a dark blue grey canvas. I had to stand in front of it and let my eyes adjust before the shadows emerged. Extraordinary.
There were many beautiful works of art focused on women.
There were also quite a few works focused on Italian Renaissance art, which I believe would have been due to the influence of Bernard Berenson, a friend of Isabella’s and connoisseur of the genre, and a lot of religious art as well.
Light spills into the palace in such a way as to illuminate it as its own work of art. The building itself is so beautiful that I kept stepping back to admire it’s design as I walked through the floors.
The work on display was presented in a way that felt very unusual but incredibly well balanced. I was not aware before this visit that Isabella Stewart Gardner had curated the works on display and left instructions that the entire collection be preserved and presented in exactly the way she left it. By the time I reached the second floor, I had such a strong sense of the intention behind the collection that I stopped to ask about it and learned everything was exactly where she put it. The directions of her will stipulate that if anything is every moved, the entire museum would be required to close and all of the art given to the MFA. Nothing has been added or removed (with the exception of the 1990 art heist, which remains the largest in American history).
Overall impressions: I’ve lived in New England for decades and I can’t believe I waited this long to see this collection. I didn’t realize how the museum was a direct legacy of a single woman (duh!), as my impression was more that the building would be beautiful and it was a well regarded collection. The connection to her specifically is what made this visit so extraordinary for me.
Museum admission: Adult rate is $15, My son came with me and took advantage of the college student rate of $5.
Lunch: At the Cheesecake Factory in nearby Copley Square, $50 for 2 people.
Parking: At the MFA parking garage, $29
Post Card and Stamp: $2.35