The first time I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum I went on the guided tour. It was like taking information in from a firehose and there wasn’t time to pause and stare at your favorite bits. So much of the museum is about the atmosphere Gardner created. I wholeheartedly recommend the tour, and I am glad I was able to return and spend a couple of hours on my own.
Isabella Stewart was born in New York City in 1840 and moved to Boston when she married her husband Jack Gardner at age 20. She inherited her father’s fortune and began collecting art. Her friend Bernard Berenson helped her pick up some magnificent Italian Renaissance art from Venetian royalty experiencing hard times. She began designing a Palace to house her collection with exquisite attention to detail. It is located in Fenway and you gain admission with just $15.
When I looked back at my photos (non flash photography is allowed) at days end I realized that I was taking more pictures of decorating ideas that I was of the most renowned pieces. (Check out January 25 blog). Here are the top 8 design tips:
Make the most of first impressions. Don’t let your foyer become just a shoe dumping ground.
2. Paint at least one wall “zappy blue”. The last paint color that inspired me was Jefferson’s choice of robin’s egg blue in Monticello. This is even more exciting. Gardner created the recipe and sent it to Italy to be mixed. I wonder if my local Sherwin Williams can recreate this.
3. Take your objects d’art out of the cupboard and dedicate a sideboard or table to displaying them.
4. Add walls or doors when your art collection outgrows your display capacity.
5. Find clever space for bookshelves on top of hallways and doorways.
6. Take your “great room” to the next level. I once went to a fundraiser at the Governor’s Mansion that the Reagans built but Jerry Brown refused to occupy. It’s owned by a couple who filled every square inch with furniture. This sparse version (and only half is in photo) feels so much more grand.
7. Build around a courtyard. I’m creating this out of my postage stamp backyard.
8. Create a snug. Room too large to be cozy? Use fabric to create a room within a room.
I read about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum a couple of decades ago before the expansion. I’ve been yearning to visit ever since. The couple of times I’ve made it to Boston the family agenda has superseded mine. I finally made it! Since I first read about it they have added a whole new administrative wing with a cafe, book shop, reading room, music hall and offices.
Gardner created her palace of fine art to show off her collection. What I didn’t realize is that it designed as an immersive experience. It is Gardner’s assemblage masterpiece. For example, the wing she added for John Singer Sargent’s El Joleo. Her cousin owned the painting and accepted an ambassador appointment. He had planned to will her the painting, so she offered to “babysit” and then immediately added this Spanish Cloister to best display the painting. On one side are spanish tiles and pottery and an archway into the center courtyard garden, and on the other side is a mirror to better enjoy the painting and light. She didn’t use electrified lighting (although her personal apartments did) so there is a place on the floor where the original lantern stood. She opened the new gallery space to much fanfare, so of course her cousin could not ask for the painting back!
I definitely recommend the docent guided tour. In an hour the docent explains in depth 6 different paintings and in the process you see most of the museum. I must warn you though, you’ll either want to plan for time to go back and look longer at the things you had to speed by on the way, or go again or both! This vignette is typical of Gardner’s creations. In the Raphael room, she created this scene for us to admire Raphael’s painting of a friend. They do have elevators to help people who cannot cope with the stairs.
In 1990 the Museum experienced a theft of 13 paintings–3 from the Dutch room–by 2 men dressed as Boston police officers. This self-portrait of Rembrandt remained because it is on wood and could not be cut out of the frame. There is a $5 million reward for the return of the paintings. They have left the empty frames awaiting their return. The will stipulates that nothing in the gallery can be changed and this has been honored almost to the last inch, making the theft more tragic. The 2005 documentary Stolen is fascinating (I just ordered a used DVD for $12. I originally saw it from a rental from the video store–remember those?).
Isabella Stewart Gardner was fascinating in her own right. A bad-ass woman for her time, or for any time. She used her $33 million inheritance to create this museum masterpiece. I bought a biography, Mrs. Jack, from the excellent gift shop. I look forward to reading it. There were at least 2 portraits of her in the museum. My favorite was the John Singer Sargent portrait hanging on the top floor of the gallery. Henry James introduced Gardner to Sargent and she became his patron and enthusiastic collaborator. He painted her portrait just after the scandal of painting Madame X and having it refused by the client. This portrait also caused a ruckus and Gardner’s husband Jack asked her not to display it in the gallery (and so she did not until after his death). I love it!
Getting to the museum was an easy walk from the Ruggles Station on the Orange Line. Gardner bought the land at the edge of Frederick Law Olmstead’s new park Fenway (what was on the edge of town at the time). There are a number of art colleges surrounding it and it is just a short walk from Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. I also found Lyft to be super affordable and never waited more than 4 minutes for my driver. It is just slightly more expensive than the T. It is only $15 admission but thanks to my Crocker Art Museum membership I got in free. There are senior discounts $12 and student discounts $5. The museum hours vary and the galleries are closed on Tuesdays.