Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Although I have been visiting Boston for 30 years now, today was my first trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I loved it. I went with my sister, an art history professor, and I completely agree with her that it is one of the best museums in the world. It is less a collection of works of art than a work of art itself, a giant collage or scrapbook creating a single thing from many diverse pieces. The individual works are splendid in themselves, but together they are something much more.

The museum's creator was Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), a wealthy socialite and patron who befriended, among others, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. She built the museum specifically to hold her collection, and it shows. The windows, arches, and colonnades in the magnificent central courtyard were all purchased in Europe, brought back, and installed in her creation. The building is plain on the outside, so it is something like a Venetian palazzo turned inside-out.

There are wonderful paintings, yes, but lots of museums have wonderful paintings. What is extraordinary about the Gardner is the way they are assembled in rooms with splendid doors, fabulous fireplaces, astonishing furniture, and brilliant wall coverings. Sargent's El Jaleo is displayed in a room decorated with majolica tiles, pieces of Romanesque churches, and other beautiful, vaguely Spanish things.

Another rooms are devoted to Dutch art, Asian art, and Venetian art (above). But I found that I was so taken with the doors, cabinets, lintels, and random bits of sculpture that I hardly noticed most of the paintings. It was a fabulous afternoon.

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent.

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