01 February 2012

Mrs. Jack

Daughter: Mom! I finally got to go to the Gardner Museum
Me: Really?  Oh! I'm so glad. Did you like it?  Isn't it gorgeous? 
Daughter: I loved it!  But you know...  it feels just like our house, only everything's more expensive.

Yes, I'm something of a packrat—or as I prefer to think, 'caretaker of the past'. But the packrat of all packrats, the Queen of Caretakers, was the divine Mrs. Jack Gardner.  "Isabella" to her friends.

Isabella Stewart Gardner's life was remarkable. And the Gardner Museum is the jewel in her crown, the moreso for having been her actual home. She carefully oversaw the building of Fenway Court (as it was first known) from the first designs on paper to the last roof tile, and when it was completed she filled it to overflowing with all the things she'd collected throughout her life—items she cherished and loved and put on display in a charming willy nilly fashion, as we all tend to do with life's souvenirs.  (Except that in her case, the 'souvenir' might be a stained glass window from a French cathedral, or a carved pillar from a Roman ruin.) But despite the pedigree of her possessions and their remarkable, untold value, it's more like walking through a magical storehouse of precious booty than a formal gallery.  Or, as my daughter sensed, it is indeed like wandering through someone's home.  Here was a place where Isabella could lean her latest acquisition—perhaps a Degas painting—against a piece of Etruscan sculpture, or on the floor next to a French prie-deux, or on the wall next to a painting from an entirely different era, not caring if Sargent and Valasquez made strange bedfellows.  Because as well as being a museum that she would eventually will to the City of Boston, it was where she lived for the last 23 years of her life—a lovingly tended canvas against which she leaned all the priceless flotsam and jetsom of a remarkable existence.

From the outside it looks somewhat underwhelming, but once you step through the doors you're greeted by a sumptuous 15th c. Venetian palace, with a courtyard full of orchids, precious tiles and statuary, and balcony after balcony on four sides that reach upward three storeys to a skylight that nearly covers the entire roof.

Her philanthropy was legendary, and in her day she was one of the chief patrons of the arts in America. She travelled frequently, was painted by the likes of Sargent and Zorn, and was known around town as "Donna Isabella" or "Isabella of Boston". Her bequest includes more than 7,000 pieces of correspondence, from the authors, painters, musicians and poets of her time. On the occasion of her home's completion, she had members of the Boston Symphony over to perform in the music room for guests. 

One of the catchphrases at the Museum is "encounter art and beauty"
and when you walk through the doors of Isabella's home, it couldn't be more true.


  1. Have you heard of the sad news.... "they" are trying to put on an addition to the Stewart....how awful.

  2. The new wing, adjacent to the original museum, opened this week. As I read more about its function, it seems to be a place for concerts, workshops, modern exhibits, artisan apartments (for patronage) and reference. In the words of the director: "Here, the thinking and the work of the Museum is performed, so that the Palace, which had been put to uses for which it was not equipped, can once again give visitors the experience Isabella Stewart Gardner intended: a personal confrontation with art."

  3. What a wonderful place that would be to visit! I enjoyed your cabinet bed post too!

  4. It is a truly beautiful place! I hope you get to see it one day. If you'd like to read more about Isabella Stewart Gardner, I recommend "Mrs. Jack" by Louise Hall Tharp. I think it's out of print but you can find used copies.