There once was a lady named Isabella, and she quite enjoyed collecting art.
Paintings, sculptures, tapestries, drawings, letters, silverware—she was not in the least bit picky.
Thanks to a rich father, a rich husband, and an irrepressible curiosity and love for travel, Isabella in her lifetime amassed enough artworks to fill a museum. And that’s exactly what she did.
The woman of whom I speak was Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the space she created, located in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston and originally called Fenway Court, is known today simply as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
While it doesn’t look like much from the outside, on the inside the building at 25 Evans Way is surely one of the most enchanting houses of fine art in the United States.
Designed to resemble a Renaissance-era Venetian palace, with three rectangular floors surrounding an elegant courtyard, the main wing of the Gardner Museum would be a pleasure to behold even if it contained no works of art.
To amble through its dozen-and-a-half rooms—some cramped and dark, others stately and lavish—is like touring the old Newport Mansions or the period rooms of a more traditional museum. The Gardner has never served as a private residence, but it feels like one nonetheless—albeit one overflowing with priceless knickknacks of every imaginable sort.
That, in a way, is the secret to its appeal, and why anyone even slightly interested in the numinous powers of fine art should give the Gardner a go. It is why it is with great embarrassment that I confess that, despite my close proximity, until last week I had never been there myself.
As a rule, most American art museums fall into one of three broad categories. First, those that are loyal to a distinct form—say, a museum of photography or textiles; second, those encompassing a particular subject or time frame—say, a museum surveying feminism or the 20th century or, on occasion, a single artist; and third, those that are more general and comprehensive in scope, which effectively place art itself as their primary subject.
In all three cases—and here’s the main point—the particular works on display are essentially whatever the curators can get their hands on, but each piece must follow a certain rubric in order to be included, if only within a subsection of the institution in question. There is some definite thematic scheme of one sort or another.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum follows none of these traditions, and that’s the magic of it. As mentioned, it contains every manner of tchochke under the sun—there are over 2,500 pieces within its relatively modest confines—and they have but one unifying characteristic: They were all purchased and admired by Isabella Stewart Gardner, a humble art enthusiast from New York. As I say, being there is like wandering through someone’s house—hers, to be precise.
Indeed, the only reason the Gardner Museum makes sense—the only reason it would be worth anyone’s time—is because Gardner herself happened to have such divine taste.
This one-woman-show dynamic was all quite deliberate when the place was conceived, built and opened at the turn of the 20th century, and it is precisely what lends it its idiosyncrasy—a quality that describes far fewer large art museums than it should.
In addition to having amassed the art, Gardner was instrumental to its look and construction, and personally arranged and supervised the placement of every last item in her collection—which she did, according to some expects, in a way that is not particularly coherent. What is more, in her will she famously included a demand that the layout of every room remain exactly as is in perpetuity. Should any alterations occur, she stipulated, the entire lot is to be auctioned off, with the proceeds forwarded to Harvard University.
Above all else, my inaugural visit to the Gardner Museum put me in mind of Charles Foster Kane. The (fictional) hero of Orson Welles’ 1941 movie Citizen Kane, Kane the man was, like Gardner, a voracious, lifelong hoarder of valuable, and often peculiar, bric-a-brac. In one of the film’s final shots, we are given a breathtaking aerial view of the totality of this mountain of treasure, and the unspoken subtext is that this seemingly inexplicable mass of possessions, hauled up in some warehouse following Kane’s death, is to be taken as both the literal and metaphorical summation of his life. In lieu of being comprehended through his words and actions, he can only be understood, if at all, through his things.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was not nearly as opaque as Kane. She declared her passions loudly and clearly and, depending whom you talked to, was perhaps slightly easier to get along with, too.
But she is nonetheless a person whose immortality became assured through what she physically amassed in the course of a lifetime. She did not create the works in her museum, but by acquiring them and throwing them all together in a way that only she could, she became their author. The museum is not only by her, but in a rather endearing way, it is her.
As far as living a life to some purpose goes (to paraphrase Thomas Paine), one could do a lot worse.