Two days was not enough time to do even Boston proper properly. But we did check one highlight off my list, the Venetian-inspired villa that wealthy collector Isabella Stewart Gardner built as her home in 1899-1901 and left to posterity as a museum.
As you can see, it’s not your average museum. The less charitable among us, namely the CE, insists on referring to it as a “flea market”, which is unfair and untrue, because how many John Singer Sargent paintings do you see in your average flea market?
El Jaleo, 1882 – John Singer Sargent
And likewise, how many Titian masterpieces?
The Rape of Europa – 1560-1562 – Titian
Unlike other museums, which are continually in the process of being edited and curated, this one was the lived-in home of an avid collector, who stipulated in her will that not one item was ever to be changed or moved out of place. Thus, there are enormous panels of fabric stapled to walls and architectural elements affixed amidst priceless paintings in every room. If it all becomes too much, you can always look out a window at the lovely grounds.
Or into the spectacular courtyard:
Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in 1840 into wealth, and then married into greater wealth, granting her an unlimited purse with which to indulge her twin passions of travel and collecting art. I came across mention of her in the recently published The Personal Librarian (Marie Benedict), a somewhat fictionalized biography of Belle da Costa Greene, who was personal librarian to J. P. Morgan. Famed art historian Bernard Berenson was a central figure in both women’s lives, as a business associate to Gardner and illicit lover to Greene.
Along with Sargent and Berenson, writer Henry James was also a part of Gardner’s inner circle. This portrait of him was painted by his nephew, William James, Jr:
Among the “emerging artists” of the day encouraged by Gardner were James McNeill Whistler. His Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, 1865 might be my favorite memory of our visit to the museum:
Gardner’s personal favorite was Christ Carrying the Cross (15015-1510 – Circle of Giovanni Bellini) which leans inauspiciously above a small writing desk – it would be easy to miss entirely!
Amidst the jumble of paintings and artifacts, we occasionally happened upon what appeared to be an empty frame. Had we done our homework before coming to the museum we would have learned about the 1990 theft of thirteen works of art, including Johannes Ver Meer’s The Concert, considered to be the most valuable of any stolen work of art.
There remains a $10 million reward for the unsolved theft, shrouded in mystery and suspected by some to be connected to organized crime figures.
When we return to Boston, as we most assuredly will, the CE has made it clear he wants to visit the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, where I’m sure there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. I want to see it, too – but I’m most definitely going to wander back over to visit Isabella and all her treasures.
Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888 – John Singer Sargent
IF YOU GO: buy your tickets online in advance – people were being turned away the day we were there because of limited capacity.
Come ready to climb stairs – there are lots of them.
And plan on staying for lunch – the café is excellent!