Hannah and I have decided that every so often, we will write a post profiling a famous, but not widely know, woman from the past. The woman we’ve chosen to be our first is probably more infamous than famous. At least in the Boston area.
On a recent visit to Boston, Hannah and I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which is located in the Fenway area of Boston. On a gorgeous, sunny day, it was a bit surreal to go into the first part of the museum—constructed only in the last couple of years—to buy our tickets. Surreal because of the rest of the museum. The first part is all clean lines and perfect temperature and bright, pleasing colors: a 2012 version of symmetric, breathable classiness. But once you have your tickets, you walk through a glass portal into the museum, and the real fun begins.
This is a post about Isabella Stewart Gardner, not her museum. But as I walked through the rooms, I began to sense that the museum and the woman who created it speak volumes about each other. It’s a crazy place, that museum. In stark contrast to the balance and dignity of the newly constructed entryway, the museum (nestled into a huge house that was constructed to look like a 16th century Venetian residence) is a study in disorder. To Isabella, everything had a reason and a place. But to a visitor, it is chaos.
I wanted to know more as soon as I began wandering through the rooms. It was clear that whoever had designed the place had very strong ideas about what was important, and it was also clear that she was an amateur. Why else would she have placed Vermeers next to unknown 19th century prints? Why would she have hung a length of green silk cut from one of her own dresses under a Degas, and then placed a 16th century lectern, sporting a massive old manuscript underneath it?
The rooms were overwhelming in their eclectic style, and in the abundance of art. Several rooms were hung wall to wall with paintings, drawings and prints. Stepping into them and trying to look at each picture was impossible. And the experience of disorientation was only heightened by the security guards in each room. As I stared up at a painting of a woman with curly red hair, trying to find a mooring for my wandering eyes, I heard a voice close to my ear: “Does this painting…interest you?”
I turned to see an elderly security guard standing beside me. I said yes, too surprised and intrigued to say anything else, and he began to tell me in his thick accent about the woman in the painting, and how her granddaughter had stood on the spot where I now stood and told him that her grandmother had had 10 children, and was pregnant in the painting. “And from that moment, I knew, in my heart, this painting, it is the one,” he finished.
It was probably the best museum interaction I’ve ever had. As I continued walking around, I knew little more about Isabella Gardner than that she had very odd taste and had written into her will that nothing in the museum could be removed or added. But as I’ve read more about her, I realized that my interaction with the security guard is exactly what she envisioned for her museum. You can feel the eccentricities of her personality even now, almost 90 years after her death. But her museum is still doing what she intended it to do—bring art to Americans, and allow them the space to observe it in a disarming state of chaos.
Isabella Gardner was a crazy woman. What else can you call someone who, in 1912, attended the posh Boston Symphony Orchestra wearing a white headband emblazoned with “Oh, you Red Sox,” on it? Or, while building her museum, asked to borrow the beautiful and famous Sargent painting “El Jaleo” from her cousin, and once it was in her house began reconstructing a room to house it? That would make for an awkward conversation—which ultimately ended in the cousin gifting the painting to Isabella.
There are many details about Isabella’s life that fascinate me. There is her marriage to John Lowell Gardner (Jack), which was apparently a happy one, despite the loss of their 2-year old son in 1865. After their son died, they began collecting art, and Isabella conceived her dream of creating a museum—which Jack shot down, when he found out she wanted to transform their house. There is the fact that she contacted an architect in secret two years before her husband’s death, and that she brought the same architect (Willard T. Sears) up only ten days after Jack’s funeral to begin designing the museum. Apparently, art was a way of healing for Isabella.
But as I read more about her, I became fascinated with the fact that she used her eccentricity, not only to get what she wanted, but to get what she wanted for others, and perhaps even to shield herself from the society of the day. Several accounts talk about how the wealthy Bostonians snubbed her when Jack first brought her to the posh Back Bay neighborhood, and for years to come. It was only towards the turn of the century, when Isabella was in full swing constructing her museum, that the younger generation fell in love with her because of her quick wit and freedom to do whatever she wanted (see above: white head band at BSO concert. Seriously.)
And she used her influence—or infamousness—to jump start John Singer Sargent’s career, after he painted that startling portrait of her in black and pearls. (Which she loved, and her husband hated, as evidenced by his words in a letter: “It looks like hell, but looks like you.”) After her death, she left bequests to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children, Animal Rescue League, and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As well as endowing her museum and making it impossible to alter a single thing about the layout or pieces on display. (And also neglecting to insure the art. Which was painfully apparent when one of the largest art heists of all time took five Degas, a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, and a Manet—all uninsured.)
So I guess the conclusion is, if you’re rich, you can do what you want. You can nail a Sargent to the back of a writing desk and place a 17th century chair in front of it. But Isabella Gardner was a rebel, in her own way, and I tend to think that if you’re going to be an eccentric well-off person, opening a museum and using your craziness to help others—and allowing yourself the freedom to get over the snobby Boston societal shun—is probably the way to do it.
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