I've always admired eccentrics. Eminent disregard for the conventional exposes our ridiculousness and negates this world's power to produce migraines, ulcers and hysteria. Contact with a true eccentric is essential to maintaining one's sanity. The few eccentrics I've known have rescued me from the brink of self-destruction. Eccentrics hang drying pumpkin and apple slices from their livingroom ceilings. They know the words to "God Save the Czar." They are experts on the Hapsburgs. They wear Wallabees. And, if they happened to have been extremely rich and Bostonian in the 1890s, they built Venetian palaces.
Something in Boston's air is favorable to eccentrics, and Isabella Stewart Gardner was one of the all-time classics. She began her career in fairly tame fashion, doing all sorts of things that proper Bostonian ladies never did. She was born in New York--perhaps her worst offense. She wore diamonds in her hair. She had an affair with an incipiently bad novelist. She wore French dresses, she collected rubies. She let the painter John Singer Sargent chase her all over the gym at Groton, showed up at the Church of the Advent one Lenten Sunday to scrub the steps as penance for what followed.
Eventually she tired of rubies--or perhaps her long-suffering husband tired of buying them for her. She easily made the transition to her next hobby. Mrs. Gardner had a Harvard fixation. Her only child died in infancy, so she took to mothering Harvard men. (Even in advanced age she detested Radcliffe women, regarding them as competition. They returned her sentiments.) At any rate, she often graced Harvard lectures with her presence. Through Charles Eliot Norton, she discovered Dante, and she learned about art. Her businessman husband was intrigued. They began to collect.
Mrs. Gardner bought what she liked--that was her only criteria. Bernard Berenson (who would will his Florentine villa to Harvard) was her European buyer; he found that the best way to sell her anything was to claim it had been painted for, or had belonged to, an Isabella. She bought one of the world's 36 Vermeers because she found it "charming," and a portrait of Mary Tudor because the queen wears a pearl that once belonged to Isabella of Spain.
When her husband died in 1898, Mrs. Gardner had amassed an art collection that included Botticellis, Rembrandts and Raphaels. Her house on Beacon Hill was overflowing with paintings and potted palms, so she decided to make use of her spare time and her warehouse full of Italian marbles and build a palace on the newly land-filled Fenway. She changed blueprints daily for five years, infuriating her architects. She was so picky about details that, although in her late 60s, she climbed up a ladder in her central court to blend the exact shade of yellow-pink she wanted.
Mrs. Gardner was so finicky about where everything went that, just before she died, she had herself carried through the palace on a gold sedan chair, placing everything in its final position. Then she wrote in her will that if anything were ever moved, the land, the building and all its contents would be sold, and all the money would go to Harvard. I like to think of her expression as she stuck a portrait of her husband in a corner on top of a cabinet and of Derek Bok's as, on a visit to the museum, he might idly contemplate switching a saucer.
As a result, the set-up of the museum is insane. The most often-heard comment there is "Where did she get all this junk?" Japanese screens crowd the back staircases. Roman sarcophagi mix with Buddhist shrines, are surmounted by Venetian balconies and bordered by Egyptian owls. That portrait of her husband confronts a Botticelli--when Mrs. Gardner bought that painting, the Prince who smuggled it out of Italy almost landed in jail. Her Manets are grouped in one tiny, overcrowded room where they compete with William James's portrait of his literary brother, while an entire long hall is given over as a showplace for a Spanish dancer, painted by Sargent. The portrait Sargent did of her sits in the Gothic room on the third floor. Stained glass windows flank her, and a carved chest topped by a huge Bible lies before her like an altar. And, with an amazing amount of stupidity, she placed the only Vermeer in New England perpendicular to a window. The light shines on it at the only angle that could make it completely unreadable.
The lighting in the museum is so bad that the guards have been known to pass out flashlights. These friendly gentlemen delight in the hours they spend relating charming bits of essentially useless information. One took half an hour to explain to me that Count Thommasso Inghirami is cross-eyed.
The Gardner is not even a museum in the classical sense. It's not dedicated to the continuous acquisition of art objects. It conducts no research. The paintings are there because Mrs. Jack Gardner liked them and with no other thought in mind she arranged them haphazardly all over the building. Mrs. Jack's pleasure palace, as it's sometimes called, is a tangible recreation of her erratic personality--walk through the building with that in mind and you come to know her. It is crazy and absurd, partly full of junk yet partly one of the greatest art collections in the United States. But if you stop and think that a Venetian palace has no business in Boston, you've missed the point.
A Venetian palace, in a sense, has more business in Boston than in Venice, if only to remind us that not everything need be strictly chronologically or nationally ordered.
Eccentrics are not very plentiful these days, but the irreverance they represent is essential for survival. The Gardner Museum and all the letters, drawings, priceless paintings and china and carved doors and plaster casts and orchids and headless Greek statues in it are almost a monument to eccentricity. Mrs. Jack's place helps us step back from the world--if only for a moment--to laugh at all the absurdity.