Art comes alive at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The ever-changing garden at the ISG Museum

My friend, Isabella and I got off the train at the Museum Stop in Fenway and made our way to the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, clutching our coats against the bitter Boston wind. Even as I was feeling smug about my student discounted ticket, I saw my friend being waved in because of the museum's 'Isabella's free…forever admission policy'. I thought this was quite charming and quirky. By the end of the evening, I was convinced that this museum, founded and designed single handedly by a spirited woman, Isabella Stewart Gardener, was distinctive in many more ways.

The building's exterior is quite plain, but once inside, we knew we had walked into somebody's creative and exotic dream. Built in the style of a Venetian palazzo around a square inner courtyard, this four floored museum was the home of the Gardners after Mrs. Gardner inherited her father's mining fortune. The sunken courtyard, protected from the winter cold by a glass roof had blooming orchids, tree ferns and other palms, and a gentle waterfall spilling from the mouths of gargoyles. In the gallery, several visitors were standing wide-eyed in front of 'El Jaleo' by the American artist John Sargent, and a guide was recounting how Mrs. Gardner persisted with her cousin to give her the painting, and even created a special enclave to exhibit this work. In fact, the entire collection and display in the museum is reflective of her personality and sentiments. She placed carefully collected objects - paintings, sketches, mosaic tiles, furniture, textiles, sculptures, musical instruments, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, photographs and letters — in special arrangements assigning a theme to her creations. Portraits of herself are spread across the galleries and show her to have been a short woman with an enviable hour-glass figure and exquisite taste in clothes.

It occurred to me that she had a sense of humour when I saw a striking portrait of Count Tommasso Inghirami by Raphael, in which his eyes are raised up and to the right as if he is thinking about what to pen down. Strategically placed, it appears that the portly count is looking out of the window. She was a religious woman and created a serene chapel flanked by stained glass windows depicting scenes from the lives of saints. Mrs. Gardner was greatly influenced by European work from ancient Rome, Medieval Europe and Renaissance Italy, though her collection includes objects from Asia, the Middle East and 19th-century France and America. A student of art history herself, she collaborated with Bernard Berenson, who became one of the most respected art connoisseurs and critics of the 20th century. My friend Isabella who had a lifetime of free visits to look forward to chose to spend most of this visit gazing at two masterpieces, Titian's 'Europa' and Bellini's 'Christ Carrying the Cross', as Mrs. Gardner was believed to have done as well till she was moved to tears. I wandered through the various rooms discovering all the personal stories and sentiments of this remarkable lady etched in her arrangements. She had after all stipulated in her will that nothing in the building could be changed, removed or added to. There are pictures of her climbing ladders to show the painters how to achieve a particular effect or how to place certain tiles. Such was her spirit that the staff at the museum advised us to look at the museum as a composite work of art by an individual, and not just a home to independent valuable objects.

The building was completed in 1901 and Mrs. Gardner opened her museum to visitors on January 1, 1903. That evening, her guests were treated to the music of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the pleasure of the blooming indoor garden in the middle of winter. Even today, the museum's concert series are held in the large and beautiful Tapestry Room and attended by lovers of music and art in Boston. Though everything was intended to remain unchanging after the founder's death in 1924, the museum was robbed of thirteen works of art in 1990 in what is considered to be the biggest art theft in US history. The empty frames are displayed in their original locations in the hope of restoring one day the full glory of this fascinating museum.