The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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January 19, 2012


When I was able to order a free Community Days ticket to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (thank you, Twitter!), I didn't realize at first that my timed ticket for 11:30 this morning meant that I could think of myself as one of the first visitors to the museum after it re-opened after months of being closed for some renovations and the building of a new wing. I feel honored!  It's one of my favorite places in Boston, and it was wonderful to spend time there again this morning. {And now, of course, my reading antennae are quivering now.}

In case you're not familiar with the museum, or with Mrs. Gardner, she was born in 1840 in New York and married John Lowell Gardner, Jr., a member of a prominent Boston family, in 1860.  Grieving after their young son Jackie died in 1865,  the Gardners began traveling to Europe and collecting paintings, drawings, furniture, architectural fragments, textiles, sculptures, manuscripts and autographs, and other objets d'art. Mrs. Gardner was a patron and friend to many prominent artists, musicians and writers, including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Henry James (and a Red Sox fan).  Isabella and her husband became serious art collectors, working with Bernard Berenson and other prominent advisers.  She was also a little bit of a scandalous figure in staid and proper Boston. 

In the 1890s, realizing that their house in Boston's Back Bay was too small to hold their collections, the Gardners began to make plans for Fenway Court, a museum to be built in the Fenway, a marshy area that had recently been filled in.  Jack Gardner died before the museum was completed, but Isabella supervised its design and construction, and the installation of the artworks. The design was inspired by the the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, where the Gardners often stayed.  The museum was opened to the public in January, 1803, with Isabella living in an apartment on the fourth floor. When Mrs. Gardner dies in 1924, she left a substantial endowment for the museum and a will stipulating that the collection would remain unchanged, and the works of art position where she placed them.

The changes to the museum include the opening of a very modern new space, behind the original building, with spaces for contemporary exhibitions, a spectacular new concert hall (which I forgot to peek into!), and a different way of entering the museum.  It was a little disorienting, after years of entering the old way,  to find myself on the opposite side of the interior courtyard, with all the familiar rooms turned the wrong way around..  But that was all fleeting. The courtyard was filled with orchids, and most of the rooms in the palazzo are as they were.  There were three small rooms at one end that seemed lighter and brighter than I remembered, and that were filled with Mrs. Gardner's 19th and 20th century works of art.  One of these was a portrait of Henry James, looking very dignified, and if I hadn't come back through that room and lifted the protective cover on one of the display cases, I would have missed one of my favorite moments of the day -- seeing the first page of a letter to Isabella, from Henry, dated April 1914.   {And, on a sadder note, it's still profoundly moving to see the empty frames from the theft of 13 paintings in 1988.}

As we're getting ready to go there, virtually, in February, it was also nice to see all the paintings and drawings depicting Venice.  The new wing has an elegant gift shop filled with stunning things, but it is too chic, apparently, to sell postcards of works in the collection. I Do Not Approve, especially since I really did want to send one or two to our blogging friend who's leading us there.

I have a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner on my bookshelves, one I've read before, perfect to re-read for Venice in February. It was written in 1965, but I think it's the only one, other than an apparently controversial and slightly strange one written in 1997.  I think it would be hard to walk through the palazzo, a house built to be a museum, without wanting to know more about its founder ... especially since she's a Friend of Henry. :)


Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I visited the museum about two years ago and loved it. I can't imagine what the new wing must have been like, so thank you for letting us visit through your words! I can't wait to visit again.

I host a weekly feature called A Walk About Town, which started about a month ago. Each Thursday, I post about a spot in my town, and also iinclude a Llinky in case anyone else wants to participate. This post would be prefect, so feel free to link it up today, and please feel free to participate in the future. It's every Thursday! :)

Lisa May said...

I lived in Massachusetts for two years when I was in grad school, and I went into Boston every chance I got - and never made it to this museum. It's definitely on my list for the next time I get to visit! Thank you for the virtual tour :)

Nan said...

We brought the kids here when they were young, and I just loved being there. Your mention of her instructions about the collection reminds me of the Barnes collection controvery. There's a show on PBS tomorrow night (Aug 3) about it. And there's a movie, The Art of the Steal, and there was a recent article in the New Yorker.
It seems like they didn't change her original plan, but just enlarged to include more.

Thank you for visiting!

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