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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Brings the Renaissance to Boston

Venice on The Fenway


The amazing Isabella Stewart Gardner, was a Boston legend long before she died. People said she scrubbed the steps of the Church of the Advent as a penance and led two lions on the end of a ribbon down the main street of Boston. They swore that three footmen accompanied her carriage when the royalty of England stopped modestly at two. Those who knew her well deny the stories, but nevertheless, the truth about Mrs. Jack as she was called, was sufficiently exciting for the people of Boston around the turn of the century. Today, however, she is remembered as the founder of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Fenway Court.

Mrs. Jack lived in the height of society on the water side of Beacon Street which was "right where you ought to be"--in the words of William Mason '10, now assistant director of the Museum. For many years, she had gathered works of art from all over the world. Clever deals enable her to buy great masterpieces at bargain rates. A Vermeer for $6000 was a veritable robbery, but even when prices rose money was no obstacle for things she really wanted. Competition with the great museums of the world meant nothing to her. She devoted her entire fortune to the collection of art.

After her husband died in 1898, Boston gossiped even more about her private life. It was rumored she was starving because she had been so extravagant. Her biographer, Morris Carter '96, describes a friend of hers, "who said it was amusing to imagine her standing on a street corner, wearing all her pearls, playing her Stradivarius, and begging alms." He admits that most of her food came from her Brookline farm, but her "poverty" did not prevent her from buying Rembrandts and Raphaels.

All this time, her special agent was Bernard Berenson, the precocious art critic who had hobnobbed with his professors as a Harvard undergraduate. Mrs. Jack lent him money to study in Europe after he graduated, an investment which paid off in opportunities to buy great paintings she could not without his aid. Through him, she bought Titian's "Rape of Europa," called by many critics the most important picture in America.

Though Berenson, the world's foremost authority on Italian art, directed much of her purchasing, Mrs. Jack was not the kind of women to let her home be furnished by somebody else. Her trips to Europe were among other things, shopping jaunts. Piece by piece, she planned for a new home, a Venetian palace in Boston; by the time she was ready to break ground, she had filled a warehouse with columns, balustrades, gates, pictures, and the like.

Supervised Pink

When Mrs. Jack was ready, she picked up the belongings from her fashionable home and began building a new home in the wastelands of the Fenway. She had designed a Venetian palace which would house all her works of art in their proper setting. During construction, Mrs. Jack closely supervised every move of the workmen. The walls of the great courtyard look like Italian pink marble because she herself climbed on the scaffolding to show the workmen just how to achieve that effect with pink and white paint. Her personality pervaded every part of the museum, said Carter, her long-time friend and Museum director since her death.

Fenway Court, her new home, opened on January 1, 1903. The nobility of Boston were ushered into the music room where they became the courtiers of Queen Isabella's palace. In her own special way, she was avenging the snubs she suffered from society many years before when she first came to Boston. After a concert by the Boston Boston Symphony Orchestra, a miror at the side of the room slid back, and the guests saw a great courtyard, filled with flowers, lit by lanterns, studded with statues, and surrounded by great balconies.

In the rooms off the courtyard, Rembrandts, Titians, Botticellis and Raphaels covered the walls. The rooms were filled with early Italian armchairs, tapestries, Venetian glassware, early Roman statues, and hundreds of other things she had collected over the years. "It seemed as if the Venetian Renaissance had been reincarnated in twentieth-century Boston," Carter says.

There was no particular arrangement because Mrs. Gardner wanted it to look like a house which had slowly accumulated things rather than a museum. A Manet hangs by a Sargent; in the Chinese Loggia there is an early French French statute of a Madonna and Child; in the Raphael room, a bronze Roman bowl stands next to a Botticelli; and eighteenth century French bread cake lies near a magnificent self-portrait by Rembrandt; near several Whistler pastel is a collection of lace in a cabine which hides a hot air vent, in the Veronese room. "It is truly a human museum," says Carter.

Hands Off

When Mrs. Gardner died in 1924, Fenway Court actually became a museum. She left a four million dollar endowment whose interest for its up-keep fortunately is more than sufficient. In fact, the surplus is given to the Massachusetts General and Boston Lying-In Hospitals. Now, each year almost 100,000 visit the Museum free of charge.

Today, not as many people know about her, but the Museum will remain as a testimony to the influence of her personality of Boston, for in her will, Mrs. Jack insisted that nothing in the Museum be changed. If anything is added (a new water fountain stirred anxiety among some), anything removed for loan to an exhibition, or anything is subtracted, the entire building and all its contents go to Harvard on the provision that everything be sent to Paris and auctioned. The proceeds would be used for scholarships.

But the tradition of the status quo will continue, and the director is likely to say, as Mrs. Jack did when she was told that a picture was not genuine, "I know that perfectly well, but it will stay right there."

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