Mrs. Gardner's Museum Graces the Fenway
Cluttered Palace Shows Her Art and Personality
Isabella Stewart Gardner built a mansion, transformed it into a Venetian palace and endowed it as a museum. The museum still stands on Boston's Fenway; as her will stipulated, every object remains precisely where Mrs. Gardner placed it 60 years ago.
Like the impressionist artists of her age, Mrs. Gardner chose to convey the impression of overwhelming beauty rather than to display each treasure to its best advantage. The museum seems exhaustingly, if excitingly, full. A Dutch tile leans against the arches which surround a large Sargent painting. An 18th century Venetian settee obscures part of a 17th century embroidery panel. It almost seems that Mrs. Gardner wanted her visitors to find her treasures by chance if they find them at all.
Some of the most interesting exhibits have been built into the mansion and make the museum seem even more cluttered. Mrs. Gardner imported the columns of her Venetian palace from Italy. She transformed a Renaissance bedframe--elaborate filagree, wrought iron flowers and enamel medallion into a stair railing.
Despite the incredible crowding, Mrs. Gardner obviously arranged her treasures carefully. For example, a yellow brocaded wall highlights the colors of a Matisse. Her will stipulated that flowers be placed by certain paintings; reflecting her interest in color, she selected violets for a Giorgione and nasturiums for a Zurbaran.
After wandering through the over-whelming, overcrowded front rooms, the visitor suddenly discovers the Venetian court in the center of the museum. This court seems to overflow with flowers--the orchids which fill one corner reach into the adjoining corridor. The museum's own greenhouse supplies flowers for special seasonal arrangements: the courtyard glows with poinsettas at Christmas, bursts with lilies at Easter. The court seems more peaceful than the rest of the museum: its walks are symetrical and its walls rise gracefully to a sky-light.
The Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, is a short walk from the museum of Fine Arts stop of the Huntington Avenue MTA. The Museum 0' Fine Arts stop of the and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. It is closed Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Besides looking at the mansion and the collection, you can hear free concerts, usually chamber music or a soloist, at 3 p.m. every day the museum is open. There is a special concert at 8:45 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month.
Mrs. Gardner not only arranged every object in every room; each arrangement expresses her personality. A not-so-conservative New York heiress, she married into one of Boston's most conservative families in 1880. Gossip about her eccentric habits soon developed--in part, one suspects, because the more proper Boson matrons envied her beauty and growing group of admirers. Of course, Mrs. Gardner willingly provided eccentricities for gossip--for example after missing the train to a party, Mrs. Gardner hired a locomotive, climbed into its cabin with the engineer, and shocked the party by arriving in this high style.
Meanwhile, her reputation as a patron of the arts grew. Mrs. Gardner began to acquire paintings--and a coterie of artists. Whistler once inscribed a book to his friends Mrs. Gardner "whose appreciation of the work of Art is equalled only by her understanding of the artist."
When Mrs. Gardner began a formal collection, she approached the project with characteristic energy. Bernard Berenson, whom she had helped while he was an undergraduate at Harvard, supervised acquisitions--but Mrs. Gardner made many important decisions herself. Considering Venice her second home, she carefully planned the details of her own Venetian palace. She revised the architect's plans for the foundation. She supervised the workmen--who had been specially imported from Italy for the project. (In fact, the walls of the court are not really pink marble: Mrs. Gardner's attempt to correct the painters produced that effect.)
The elaborate, opening of the museum reflected Mrs. Gardner's love of ceremony. No newsmen had been allowed in, so curiosity ran high. On New Year's Eve 1903, Mrs. Gardner finally welcomed a few friends into her mansion. They rose to greet her as she sat on a balcony above the court. Then there was a concert by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Mrs. Gardner died 21 years after this ceremony--but her cult has grown. The museum guards uphold it. Of course, they are so old that I suspect that Mrs. Gardner selected and stationed them as carefully as she planned the inanimate objects of the museum. When these guards speak of "her," Mrs. Gardner seems very alive.
Visitors sense this cult, too--partly because the museum displays three portraits of Mrs. Gardner. In one she appears veiled and quiet--the scholar, the patron of the arts. In another painting across the same room, Mrs. Gardner seems about to sweep forward, her arms gracefully extended.
But it is the third portrait, the notorious Sargent showing her in a very low cut black dress, that is the most characteristic. Upset at the comments the dress caused, Mr. Gardner asked his wife to hide the picture during his lifetime; she agreed. After his death, however, she put it prominently in a corner of the Gothic Room and the picture remains there. Her stately figure rising against a red and gold tapestry, Mrs. Gardner gazes out on the museum she so carefully created.