Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

A Visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

It was my first visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in a long, long time. While the profile of the museum has increased among the non-art crowd over the past few years because of the recent documentary about the art theft, it remains one of the true treasures for anybody who loves art.

I always think great art is fascist in nature. It can’t be created using polls, public sentiment or marketing studies. Great art is the singular vision of an artist that transcends the self and becomes a larger presence. All the idiosyncrasies, thoughts and characteristics of the artist are somehow transformed into something greater. Rarely can a museum ever hope to achieve such a feat. Outside of the Barnes Collection, the Gardner is one of those places that displays art but it becomes transformative in the process. Isabella Stewart Gardner’s eye, taste, wild quirks and circumstance take great art and elevates it to an uncanny experience larger than its parts.

Upon entering, you shuffle through a glass enclosed walkway away from the hustle of the bookstore, coat check and cafe. Surrounded by a garden walled off from the streets of Boston, this walkway opens up into the Palace. The Palace features the three floored galleries circling the rectangular courtyard. The physical construction of the Palace is amazing – columned masonry give the building a massively solid feel. Modeled off Venetian architecture, three floors of balconies surround the courtyard, all decked out in column archways. The small courtyard rises up to a glass ceiling letting in ample light. A garden with trees, patios and decked out with loads of red poinsettias and white lilies created a festive vibe for the season.

The Palace

Once into the Palace, you start to snake your way from room to room. Even the hallways filled with an abundance of sculptures, tapestries, furniture, display cases and paintings. John Singer Sargent’s incredible El Jaleo is on display on the first floor. Brilliantly hung in its own little dark portico, the already dramatic high contrast value of the painting is heightened and set up by its dark, solitary hanging, framed by columns and arches. Ornate tiling and ancient objects line the viewer’s periphery, and natural light flows in from the garden outside. Yet the painting emphasizes Sargent’s robust shadows and explosive highlights. It’s hard to imagine a better place to see this painting.

The Yellow Room is not far, and encapsulates much of what is amazing about the museum. A crowded, tiny little corner room with a unique mustard yellow wallpaper. Filled with odd paintings of varying sizes, the space buzzes with an odd energy. A vanity filled with vases and assorted pottery, plates and dishes just fits in by the lone doorway. What could be a clusterfuck of a space instead feels warm and intimate. Whistler’s Nocturne, Blue and Silver, Battersea Ranch hovers on the walls. An abstracted minimal landscape, the grey blue composition stands out as an astounding painting and piece of design against the textured yellow walls.

art theft

The Theft

It was hard not to think of the art theft. While standing in line at the coat check, the video screen detailing the collections, downloadable maps and other museum info plugged a downloadable map to follow the movements of the art thieves from 1990. I guess leaning into things is the only way to go. A few empty frames hung in their places throughout the museum. None hit larger than the large frames in the Dutch Room though, where the two large Rembrandts used to hang. The floor was instantly identifiable from the crime scene pictures. It was easy to visualize the broken frames thrown onto the tiled floor. The two large vacant frames now spotlighted the wallpaper.

Like the loss of the Buddha statues in the run up to September 11th, all lost art is an absolute tragedy. Art is often deemed worthless and the butt of jokes among mindless morons. It is important because it’s one of the connective tissues holding together shared experiences, culture and mythologies. Gardner’s will stipulated nothing could be changed in the museum. The emptiness of the frames serves as a constant reminder of what was. 

Titian Rape of Europa


One of the greatest Titian’s I have ever seen hangs in the aptly named Titian Room on the third floor. In The Rape of Europa, Zeus’ (transformed into a bull) abducts and rapes Europa. Titian doesn’t mince words. Europa lays out with her legs spread while on his back, fish popping up from the sea below. The colors are magnificent in person – the shock of the vivid blue sky is hard to let go. Produced at the absolute apex of Titian’s career, the brushmarks, colors and visceral depth of the painted surface is astounding.

Boston native and personal hero Jack Levine painted his own version of this painting. I saw Rubens’ copy of this that now hangs in the Prado. Next to it hangs Velasquez’s Spinners, which featured women creating a tapestry of Titian’s original painted in the background. Each version created with their own hands idiosyncrasies, yet reverent to the genius of the original. I’ve long admired and obsessed over the connections and branches of the art history tree. It’s wild to be able to see all of these works in relatively short order

Isabella Stewart Gardner

The Gardner possesses a seemingly infinite amount of gems throughout its array of rooms and hallways. It’s a magnificent and unique experience, one that is simultaneously lived in and new every time. Isabella Stewart Gardner was an eccentric woman who used her wealth to explore her curiosities – travel and art. She stood normally staid Boston on its ear and there’s an endless amount of stories of her quirks and individualism. If alive today there’s a large chunk of insecure assholes and small minded shitheads who would hold her up as the antichrist.

She oversaw the building of her museum from brick to brick, and in doing so, created one of the most unique museum experiences in the world today. She patronized artists, and held true to her own vision, and that is all reflected in the ornate, wild and all encompassing collection of art on display. It takes unique individuals with vision like hers, corporate ideals or over analytic views of the world to make their mark on the world. Her museum exists and thrives without projecting paintings on walls. Fortunately, her vision is able to live on with her collection of art, displayed in a way that only she could assemble.