December 19, 2009


The House That Mrs. Jack Built
I was born and raised in Boston, but never visited the world-famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at the Fenway until a few days ago. It exceeded all my expectations, or rather SHE did.

As a girl, I heard of this magical place and saw photos of the Old World Venetian-style indoor courtyard flooded with sunlight from its glass roof four stories above. But what really thrilled me was this print I saw somewhere of Isabella Stewart Gardner ("Mrs. Jack") bursting through a doorway. I mistakenly thought this painting was by John Singer Sargent (whose artwork was ardently collected by ISG), but it's actually by Andrew Zorn. This radiant portrait captured ISG's spirit, and from that one glimpse, I recognized a kindred spirit, and got what ISG and her museum were all about: a celebration of life and beauty for everyone, guided by ISG's sure, particular, womanly, determined, strong, playful, rich, religious and culturally open aesthetic. (As Mother said, the museum has a "woman's touch," but it doesn't feel overly feminine or frou frou.)
"C'est mon plaisir"
Mother and I parked on the street and entered the boxy but unassuming building at 2 Palace Way under Isabella's welcoming motto: "C'est mon plaisir." (Isabella is alive even outside the building.) You are her guest. Inside is a perfect mix of color, light, statuary, paintings, furniture, sculpture, tapestries, sketches, ceramics, rare books and papers, plants and flowers, artifacts ancient and modern (up to 1903 when the museum opened and ISG completed her 2,500 piece collection). Along with this repository, ISG supported and promoted many young artists and almost every art form including dance and music. The only art she seemed to stay away from was abstract art. (?!) The current artist-in-residence at the ISGM is displaying video.

One word to describe ISG's sensibility? Victorian. The very best of the gilded age (to which I am romantically partial). The courtyard, filled with Roman statues and fountains is looked down on by eight balconies and four Venetian facades. The greenery gives off a palpable hothouse feel. The art galleries are on the first three floors, and the fourth floor where Mrs. Jack used to live has been turned into offices. (Mother was rightly upset that they hadn't preserved--and we didn't get to see--how she lived, that her private quarters weren't PART of the museum.)

On the first floor, there are nooks and crannies, cloister arches, an outdoor walled garden, a cafe and a small gift/book shop. In 1903, ISG threw open her own house to the public forever. When it opened, she had a larger collection than the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which had moved in next door. (Even in real estate, Isabella was a trendsetter, draining the Fens and making it THE place to be.) Since 1903, the ISGM has remained basically unchanged (as per her will). ISG designed and meticulously oversaw the architecture and entire building process herself. "Genius," doesn't even begin to cut it. She was proud to be of the royal house of the "Stuarts," and in a different time and place, ISG would have been a wondrous and munificent queen.

Mother and I meandered around the first floor; ate a "boutique" but satisfying lunch in the tiny cafe; wanted everything in the exquisite, tiny gift/book shop (but settled for two books on our newfound heroine); used the ladies room with its whimsical wall-maxims:
"Le secret de deux:
Le secret de Dieu.
Le secret de trois,
le secret de tous"
and then proceeded to the upper galleries.

A Well-Appointed Room
One thing you must know is that ISG arranged every single gallery herself to the last detail and stipulated in her will that nothing is ever to be moved or sold or added to (sounds like St. John in the New Testament!). Control freak? No. Artist who knew exactly what she was doing. (Her "ebullient" personality was the exact opposite of control freak.) Her whole house (which truly feels more like a house than a museum) is what we would call today an "installation." It is her work of art. Like the new Getty Museum in L.A., the atmosphere itself speaks. Each chamber is not simply four blank walls on which to hang art, it's an actual room with tables and chairs and fireplaces and such, around which all the art is placed as decor. But don't even think of sitting down, because the chairs are also art. Everything in the room is part of the collection.

The Art Whisperer
I was eager to see the (Blessed) Fra Angelico she had acquired, and when we unknowingly walked into the gallery where it hung (along with tons of other religious art), a docent immediately approached me and said: "I want to show you something," and brought me to the Fra Angelico. It was right next to a window with sunlight streaming onto it. Concerned, I mentioned this to the docent who replied (without missing a beat): "That's because SHE wanted YOU to see it in natural light." Whoa. That's right! SHE placed this here herself! Talk about personal. Talk about reaching through the ages. Talk about ISG truly wanting to educate the public about art. ISG is STILL the mistress of the Fenway, aiming and succeeding at surprising and delighting. Mother asked the docent how he knew I wanted to see the Fra Angelico and if he was psychic.
Every step through ISG's house-museum, you feel she's walking beside you, guiding you. SHE is your docent. And every docent we talked to (or rather, Mother talked to) seemed to have a direct line to her thoughts and wishes. (Maybe that little secret service wire coil going from their ears down inside their jackets.... Nah, couldn't be.)

Doberman Docents or Sage Security?
These docents--who insist they are NOT docents but "security guards," (lest we forget the tragic not-so-distant ISGM art theft which included a Vermeer and three Rembrandts are ISG's new friends (young and old), and guardians of her intentions and treasures. I have never met such knowledgeable docents anywhere who eavesdrop carefully to every visitor's conversation and comments and are eager to rejoin and enlighten. However, they are just as eager to swoop down on you if your hand, nose or any protruding joint does not stay more than one foot away from any artifact. And don't lean on anything. Anything. The chiffarobe-thingy displaying the letter from Napoleon Bonaparte is also imported and priceless.

Intimidated by Art
All my life I have been intimidated and frustrated by "art." I've never had an art appreciation course to speak of (and never seem to have time for one), so when I go to art museums, I feel like I don't know what I'm looking for or at. I feel so ignorant and wrong somehow (beyond "I like it," "I don't like it"), and I find myself strangely and unusually inarticulate about why I like/dislike something. But ISG did away with all that. She didn't even label her stuff. There are no signs, dates, names, explanations to read. Even the artisan cheeses in the cafe were unlabeled. I asked one of the non-docents why SHE didn't put labels on any of the artwork. "She probably didn't want her house filled with signs." Ah. Neither would I. After a half-hour in the ISGM, I realized I felt right at HOME with art for the first time, totally non-threatened. As I floated around the palace (for it is a palace), I realized that the absence of signs and reading, reading, reading, made for a much more enjoyable and direct encounter with art. In fact, the ISGM looked like a gay 1890's party was about to ignite at any moment. I think somehow ISG understands the layperson's art-apprehension and wants to totally put us at ease like a fine hostess would. I say "understands," because Mrs. Jack is NOT dead. There is nothing dead about this woman. She is proof that there is life after death: for her, for the artists she has domestically enshrined, for us--the "public" whom she must have felt a future fondness for. But I also think that, secretly, SHE was one of us, rejected as she was by Boston's stuffy high-society.

An Original Among Originals
In the last gallery we visited was a portrait of ISG by John Singer Sargent. Mother gasped to the non-docent: "Is that an original?" Of course, being the sarcastic, ingrate daughter that I am I said: "Shhh, don't tell anyone, Ma, but they're all originals in this place!" The non-docent was not amused (by me) and proceeded to tune me out and take great delight in conversing with Mother who told him he had an aura and that he should think about being an actor or a writer. This young man reassured my mother that sillier things had been said within the hallowed halls of the ISGM. Why just today two teenage girls asked him: "Why is everything in here so OLD?"

A Wrinkle in Time
Time is collapsed within the sanctuary of the ISGM. We have red-blooded access to the distant past, distant lands (Japan was a favorite of Isabella's), and to Isabella's own era (which she transcended anyway). There's even an ancient stone Egyptian "esophagus" (Mother) or two.

ISG was an Episcopalian who wove all kinds of Catholic art (including several altars set up for Mass) into her home-museum, making some galleries more like a house-church. In her world, the sacred and profane are marbled all together where they belong, and as they should be.

And now, a lovely telling story about the soul of this grand dame. There is a chair in one of the galleries where SHE would sit every day and meditate on a tapestry of the Crucifixion. But above and beyond it, she could also see Titian's sensuous "Europa." There are also quite a few breastfeeding Madonnas. Theology of the body. She left instructions that even after her death, fresh violets should be placed in front of this Crucifixion daily--which was done for years until the cost of flying fresh violets in in the middle of January was deemed too extravagant.

The ISGM allows us to literally step back in time, to dial back to a time before WWI and WWII and all that transpired afterward. The ISGM allows us to feel with a fellow human who had a singular greatness of heart. Although Isabella did not have children of her own (one child died shortly after birth, followed by a miscarriage), she generously raised her three nephews and was widowed relatively young.
With all this talk of the Fenway, I'm sure you're wondering. The answer is yes. Isabella was a Red Sox fan and a fan of other sports besides baseball.

Although one feels totally welcome in the ISGM, the tones are rather reverently hushed. One is free to talk (there are no "silence" signs), but no cell phones, please. And no abstract art.
"Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." --Philippians 4:8

"An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives man a healthy 'shock,'...draws him out of himself, from being content with the humdrum, 'reawakens' him, opening the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft." --Pope Benedict XVI to artists 11/21/09

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  1. Anonymous3:33 PM

    As a lifelong museum educator (and, full disclosure, currently employed at the Gardner Museum, I loved hearing about your journey through the Gardner. Personal curiosity and self-awarenes, a bit of risk taking, interacting with the available staff -- sounds like you created the perfect museum visit. Please come back again -- I'd love to hear your thoughts on returning to this magical place.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    OK--I have a fear. I read something about "renewing" the ISGM. I DO hope that doesn't mean moving stuff around and getting rid of the Old World feel! I think it's perfect the way it is! All that's needed is a renewed promotion and interest in the ISGM! Please reassure me. Thank you & Happy Holidays.

  3. Anonymous9:35 AM

    Thanks for your interest in the Gardner Museum - a truly magical place beloved by many - including all of us at the Gardner. The museum's plans for an extension are rooted in preservation, to ensure that the Gardner remain - as its founder Isabella Gardner mandated - 'for the education and enjoyment of the public forever...' The project will remove visitor services functions that put strain on the historic museum building and to return areas of the historic galleries closer to the way they were in Isabella Gardner's time. Rest assured! A website providing additional information on the project, available via, will go live in late January 2010 - so be sure to check back to learn more!
    - From the Gardner Museum

  4. Yay! I am sooo happy, and will make ZZZZ's in peace tonight. I get it. You're making it even MORE like it was in ISG's time. That's just ducky! God luck on your renovs & blessed 2010.