The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is amazing! Isabella Stewart Gardner created the museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever,” as her will reads. She collected more than 2,500 objects for her museum, which opened in 1903. The museum has remained virtually unchanged since Gardner’s death in 1924. All of the images here are from the ISGM website. If you click on the picture, it will link to the museum page that contains information about the image.

PJ and I visited the museum while we were in Boston last month. Above is a picture of the courtyard, which contains a magnificent garden designed so that different plants bloom and flower throughout the year. In many ways, this museum is like the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London but on an even grander scale. Gardner planned every aspect of the museum, from the flowers to the architecture to the paintings, sculptures, and furniture.

RembrandtGardner’s collection began with three important paintings: a Self-Portrait by Rembrandt (pictured here), Titian’s Europa, and a portrait of Philip IV by my favorite painter, Diego Velazquez. The Gardner’s purchased these three works in 1896. They soon realized that their collecting ambitions would require that they build a new space in which to exhibit their acquisitions.

In 1898, however, Jack Gardner died suddenly of a stroke, leaving Isabella to design and fulfill their plans. She purchased the land and designed and oversaw the building of what would become her home and the museum, Fenway Court.

I really like the Rembrandt, which hangs in the Dutch Room. This room has had some unfortunate history. In 1990, thieves dressed as Boston policemen stole 13 works of art from the museum, the most important of which come from this room. Among the stolen artworks were two additional Rembrandt paintings and a Vermeer (another painter I love).

Lady in YellowMy favorite genre of painting is the portrait. The ISGM has many excellent portraits. My favorite is A Lady in Yellow by Thomas Dewing (1851-1938), which appropriately enough hangs in the Yellow Room on the first floor of the museum. This is the painting to the right. The intricate detail of the woman’s dress, which you can see when you examine the painting up close, is wonderful.

There are several other paintings that I really liked, including The Omnibus by Anders Zorn, Mme. Gautreau Drinking a Toast by John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo also by Sargent, Hercules by Piero della Francesca, and Christ Carrying the Cross by the workshop of Giovanni Bellini. I wish I had time to write about each painting and explain what I like about it. One thing that clearly stands out in this list is my fondness for brown colors, a common trait found in Velazquez’s work as well.

Among the museum’s paintings are at least three portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner from different points in her life. It seems rare that we get to see the same subject painted at different ages, so I think that a little comparison is in order here.

The portrait that was played up the most by the museum’s lecture (if you get there at the right time, you can sit in the Tapestry Room and listen to a short lecture about Gardner, her husband, and the history of the museum — it’s definitely worth doing) is by Anders Zorn. It’s called Mrs. Gardner in Venice. The Gardners were in Venice in 1894, and Zorn was among their guests. On October 20, they were all listening to an after-dinner concert when Mrs. Gardner went to the balcony during a fireworks display. Turning back to her assembled guests and husband, Gardner called out, “Come out — all of you. This is too beautiful to miss.” The image captured Zorn’s eye, and he immediately began sketching his hostess. He finished most of the painting over the next two days.

A less dramatic portrait of Gardner hangs in the Gothic Room. This rather simple portrait was painted by Sargent. It was commissioned by Gardner and was painted in Boston between September 1887 and February 1888. Gardner’s black dress emphasizes her jewels — she collected pearls and rubies. Sargent further emphasized her figure by tying a black shaw around her hips. We bought the museum’s guide book, something we usually do so that we remember what we liked in the museum later. Here’s what the book, which was written by Hilliard T. Goldfarb, says about this painting:

Gardner confronts the spectator directly, uncompromising, as if assessing the beholder, and Sargent has animated her — and softened her features — by opening her lips as though she were about to speak. He reworked the portrait eight times, but the ninth essay was a success; she was delighted. When the new portrait was exhibited as Woman — An Enigma, at the St. Botolph Club in Boston, however, Gardner’s decolletage and idol-like presentation, as well as her suggestive pose (actually a standard model’s pose) and ostentatiously placed jewelry, sparked controversy. (147)

I find it a little difficult to image how this portrait “sparked controversy;” I guess that tells us a lot about Victorian America. Gardner was 47 when this portrait was painted.

The third portrait is also by Sargent. As you can probably tell, it shows the elderly Gardner wrapped in a shroud-like white drapery. Gardner is 82 in this portrait. It was painted after she had suffered a debilitating stroke.

Despite her frailty in this painting, one of the things that animates this image is Gardner’s inner spirit, which is successfully captured in her face. Despite the overall evocation of death in this portrait, Gardner almost seems about to stand up. Again, she confronts the spectator directly, and again she seems just about to speak. It feels as if Sargent has captured her in sentence.

Goldbarb notes the painting’s “intimacy and austerity” (34). I think it’s remarkable that we see Gardner in such an intimate way so near the end of her life. By arranging all three portraits in her museum (though admittedly not close together), she seems to insist that we compare her mortality (and by extension our own) with the seeming permanence of the works of art that fill her museum.

The lecturer we heard while we were at the museum emphasized Gardner as an installation artist, someone who uses “sculptural materials and other media to modify the way we experience a particular space,” according to Wikipedia. For me, it’s in this inclusion of her portraits in the museum that this becomes most clear: she had a vision about the relationships among the artworks and hoped that viewers would decipher and interpret these relationships. The ISGM is, therefore, the kind of museum that I think would reward repeated visits. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw something different — or interpreted something differently — every time you visited the museum. It’s now definitely one of my favorite museums, and I look forward to going back next time I’m in Boston.