Review: Isabella Gardner Museum

The Isabella Gardner Museum, located conveniently on Boston’s “Avenue of the Arts,” is an exquisite gem frozen in time; it is a magnificent throwback to the turn of the century at its best. From the street, the palace is unassuming considering its vast size. Like the architecture within the city from which it was inspired, this 15th century Venetian style palace pays homage to beautiful interiors, rather than curb appeal. Inside the modest gates, the collection boasts over 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts, rare books and decorative arts, displayed over three floors in an intimate setting. The artists inside read like a who’s who of The History of Art: Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, and Degas. These artists are like guests in Mrs. Gardner’s home. And as a visitor, you get the feeling that you are walking through the house as it was set up the day it opened, New Year’s Day in 1903.

The Museum stands unchanged since Mrs. Gardner’s death in 1924. As part of her will and generous grant to the arts, she stipulated that the collection remain as she created it – Mrs. Gardner collected all the art, designed the museum, and personally installed the art as she saw fit. Her collection differs from most museum type settings. Instead of vignettes by artist, time, or country of origin, the pieces are scattered throughout the palace, evoking the visitor to wonder why the Degas is buried in a corner space in a dimly lit yellow room. Shouldn’t these pieces be displayed more prominently as the years go by and some artists rise to god-like status while others are nearly anonymous? Not so, according to Mrs. Gardner. To get the most out of your visit, be sure to pay attention to the gold-plated names on all of the frames. While those with advanced degrees in art history might be able to point out the Vermeer over the less well-known artist, I imagine that the majority of us need a little extra help to get the most out of their visit.

Walking into the museum, the first floor is a vision of perfection and truly raises expectations for the rest of the exhibit. The first courtyard, a Spanish-themed room with mosaic tiles imported from Mexico, houses a spectacular painting, El Jaleo, by John Singer Sargent. Through the brick archways to your left lies the main courtyard – a conservatory featuring flowers, trees, mosaic tiles, statues and fountains. The entire palace wraps around this Italian-inspired courtyard, which is topped with a paned-glass ceiling four stories up. The walls, aged pink stone, set off the grandly arched windows and marble balconies. From this vantage point, you can see other visitors peering down at you from above, and behind them you catch a glimpse of the lush tapestries that are hanging from the walls in the rooms above. The peaceful feeling you get from the courtyard is immediately replaced by a nagging rush to see what the other floors have to offer.

While each room on the next two floors has plenty to offer, you can’t help wondering why conservation efforts seem virtually stagnant. The palace is showing its age, and while I understand Mrs. Gardener’s orders to keep things status-quo, it can be difficult to view the manuscripts and art from a single 40 watt lamp in the center of a very large room. Go while the sun is out to make the most of natural lighting where the artificial lighting is inadequate.

Perhaps the most intriguing room in the palace, more for what it is lacking rather than what it is displaying, is the Dutch Room. In 1990, thieves dressed like Boston policeman raided the room and made off with thirteen paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and others. All that is left of these works are two lonely vanities that display empty gold frames, a sharp contrast to the memorable works of art that proudly hung there just 15 years ago.
The third floor, arguably the best-kept in terms of interiors and architecture, hosts a colorful ceiling mural, Coronation of Hebe, in a room named after its famous artist, Paolo Veronese. The textured walls in this room deserve some attention – hand painted in faint metallic colors – reaching up to a dramatic turquoise and gold leaf ceiling. Outside of this room, Mrs. Gardner constructed a chapel to house stained glass windows that were restored from the Soissons Cathedral.

While I was blown away by the architecture of Mrs. Gardner’s Museum, I wasn’t prepared for the cluttered effect that she envisioned to display her collection of art. In between searching for particular pieces of art on busy walls, uncovering velvet draped cabinets that display historical letters, and peering into locked cases to catch a glimpse of her collection of books, you begin to appreciate how easy modern day museums make it for visitors to pass through the collections. The Gardner Museum, on the contrary, requires a great deal more thought and perhaps some extra time to dig through all of its treasures.

The Isabella Gardner Museum is open Tues-Sun from 11:00am-5:00pm and is located at 280 Fenway. From Cambridge, its accessible from the green line (get off at Museum Stop) or metered parking along the streets. The price of admission for Students: $5. For $10, you can also take in a classical concert in the Tapestry room every Sunday from 1:30-3:00pm. If your name is “Isabella”, you’re in luck – admission is free for life.