The first thing I gravitated toward after paying the entrance fee at the door of the Venetian-style palazzo was the flowering inner courtyard that rises four stories up. Around the courtyard on the first level and from the windows above, people were all poking their heads out to view the Spring-like garden. After all, this was Boston in the Fall rather than Autumn in Italy. Perhaps Isabella Stewart Gardner intended to provoke such wonder when she left her art collection to be displayed almost exactly as she left it when she died in 1924.
A willful widow in a prim Victorian era, Mrs. Gardner was an avid art collector, who left a lovely but idiosyncratic collection in this house museum. Medieval Gothic carvings and Chinese screens hang on the walls alongside tapestries and late 19th C. paintings. On one had, this is a fascinating place to explore. On the other, the way the objects are displayed–behind staricases sometimes–can make them seem merely decorative. The museum motto is “C’est mon plaisir,” (It’s my pleasure) appropriately enough. Be warned there are some Draconian rules in place–no photography of any kind (the courtyard image above was posted to Flickr from a postcard) and you must not hold your coat. I was asked to either wear it or tie it around my waist.
However, there are some stunning pieces in this strange, eclectic house. Mrs. Gardner had a close relationship with John Singer Sargent, whose large El Jaleo hangs prominently in the Spanish Cloister and who did the portrait of Mrs. Gardner above right. We followed the stairs up and wandered through some Victorian rooms filled with distinctly un-Victorian Renaissance paintings and Chinese bulls and mock altars of devotional paintings. Then we happened upon a small room with large racks of drawings by Impressionist masters to Matisse. It feels like a treasure trove flipping through rack after rack of them.
By far my favorite room was the Dutch room on the second floor. There was this stunning early self-portrait of Rembrandt hung high on the wall, diagonally across the room from Ruben’s Earl of Arundel , and a lovely portrait of a woman by Van Dyck. Not to mention a strange silver ostrich built around a ostrich egg. At that point, I didn’t mind wearing my coat or the little ropes.
Visiting is an immersing, fascinating experience. Only with such a polyglot, unlabelled collection could you have such fun playing ‘guess the painting.’ It’s incredible to realize a fantasy as closely as Isabella Stewart Gardner did with this museum.