Tuesday, February 22, 2011

c'est mon plaisir

c'est mon plaisir....it is my pleasure. look up, and high above one of the the front doors at the isabella stewart gardner museum in boston you will find the stone carving with that inscription. gardner (1840-1924) lived on the fourth floor of her mansion, fenway court, and designed it with the venetian palazzo barbaro  in mind. the three floors below contained her substantial art collection, and today the collection is displayed almost exactly as it was at the turn of the century. isabella gardner's pleasure was to collect and bring to boston beautiful artwork, and then show it to the public for a few days each month (starting when the museum opened in 1903). after her death, her will stipulated that her home and her collection should remain as it was in her lifetime—for all to see. that was her pleasure.

in anders zorn's painting isabella gardner in venice (1894), she stands tall with arms outstretched, welcoming guests into her home and out onto the balcony to see the fireworks. she is happy and full of life. at the gardner museum i almost expect to see her come around a corner, arms outstretched, and greet visitors: please come in, come in. it is my pleasure to welcome you here.

the isgm is like no other. i highly recommend a visit. it feels as isabella intended - you are in italy in an italian renaissance palace, not a museum. much of the art is italian renaissance. the rooms are laid out like the actual rooms in a palace, with straight, long staircases leading to the different floors. it is rather dark on a cloudy day—exactly as it would have been in the 1400's and 1500's. away from the windows it can seem a bit dim; there is no museum lighting. there are also no labels beside each piece of art giving the artist's name and date. (there are handheld cards in every room, however, to give you as much or as little information as you want - mrs. gardner preferred that one contemplate each piece on its own merit.) and yet a museum it is, with rooms full of paintings, sculpture, ceramics, tapestries, drawings, rare books, silver, furniture, stained glass and ornate wooden doors and mantelpieces.

isabella gardner did not like stuffy, sterile museums. hers was intended to be different from the start—and it is. four stories up, the central courtyard is covered in glass (the first of its kind—1903—
in the u.s.)  flowers and plants bloom all year. most of the three floors of museum rooms face the courtyard. the light that fills the space from walls of floor to ceiling windows is magnificent. i stood for a few minutes in each open window (there are a lot of them), sniffed the moist, fragrant, fertile earth, and allowed my eyes to feast on the stunning view of the lush green garden below. (this was early february 2011 in boston, where they had recently endured one snowstorm after another.) above my head there was snow clinging to parts of the glass roof. it must be a wonderful experience to be inside the gardner's courtyard during a howling northeaster.

in several rooms there are glass-topped wooden cases. the tops of the cases are covered with dark, soft velvet fabric. lift up the fabric and you are able to peer back in time at old handwritten notes and signed photos sent to mrs. gardner by friends and admirers, including fdr, walt whitman, teddy roosevelt, henry james, john singer sargent and james mcneill whistler.

as you walk through rooms—like the dutch room, the early italian room, the raphael room and on toward the tapestry room—you will pass walls filled with paintings and drawings. suddenly you will stop dead in your tracks when you notice an odd sight. taped on the wall where there should be a framed piece of art there is instead a small, glaringly naked, white piece of paper. on it is typed "STOLEN." several extremely valuable works of art were brazenly taken from the museum in 1990. the case remains unsolved.


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