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Art: Isabella's Triumph

Sheila J. Gibson

On New Year’s day, 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner, the vivacious widow who was a favorite target of gossipers, held a grand party to mark the opening of the mysterious building she had erected in the Fenway area of Boston. The finely dressed and bejeweled guests who came on that cold night were the first to see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—three stories of art, antiques, and precious objects, placed skillfully in several rooms and galleries. At its heart was a soaring Venetian courtyard, abloom with flora and alight with Japanese lanterns.

It was an event as unforgettable as the hostess who gave it, and all who attended knew that they had witnessed the debut of something special. The centenary of the opening will not be marked with any such pomp. Instead, admission fees will be waived for the day of January 1, 2003, a fitting way to honor the museum that Gardner said she created “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”

Wandering through the elegant rooms and galleries, it is easy to feel daunted by Gardner’s prowess as a collector. She had the good taste and the funds to select works by Tintoretto and Rembrandt, as well as Europa, which is still considered the best Titian in the United States. It would be nearly impossible today for one person, however wealthy and determined, to amass a collection of the size, breadth, and quality of Gardner’s, and unfortunately, her collection is no longer intact. On March 18, 1990, thieves stole several items from the museum, among them Rembrandt’s only known seascape and Vermeer’s The Concert, a painting Gardner purchased in 1892. The items remain missing and the criminals uncaught, but the losses do not dim Gardner’s achievements. One hundred years after the debut of her museum, and 78 years after her death, she still has much to teach about being an accomplished collector.

Curator Alan Chong has developed an exhibit on the making of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which will offer insight into how Gardner assembled her collection. When it opens on April 22, 2003, the exhibit will include her photographs, letters, and diaries. Travel was critical to the evolution of Gardner’s eye for beautiful things, says Chong. She visited the aristocratic palaces of Europe, then-exotic locales such as Japan, and still-exotic locales such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. “It was not just a vacation, it was hard work. She absorbed a great deal,” says Chong, explaining that her adventures served to “lead her innate good taste down a specific path.”

Gardner was also an ardent patroness who surrounded herself with creative people, and her friends included Henry James and John Singer Sargent. Moreover, she valued their knowledge. “She was not just a society person. She was willing to learn,” Chong says. Her curiosity spurred her to take a general approach to collecting, and she acquired pieces from many different cultures, places, and time periods.

Most important of all was her sense that she was serving a greater good by gathering these objects. “In the few pieces she wrote to explain her goal [in creating the museum], she says she clearly wanted to bring world culture to the United States,” Chong says, adding, “She felt she had a mission for the public. She really believed in her vision, and thought her interpretation of culture was valuable.”

Chong believes the message the museum sends to collectors is clear: “Your passion, when it is well-educated and carefully thought through, can be enough.”

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 617.566.1401, www.gardnermuseum.org

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