Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, part V – The Best of the Rest

The title is highly subjective, of course; what we are looking at – and all we’ve seen so far –  is but a fraction of The Gardner’s vast collection of artworks and beautiful objects.

Look at the imposing Tapestry Room, for instance – imposing both in size and wealth – with its Flemish tapestries lining the walls…… and a portrait of Pope Innocent X, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Velázquez but apparently it is not (but who the actually artist is, we know not)…Or the Veronese Room –

This room, which invites you to share Isabella Stewart Gardner’s love for Venice, takes its name from the painting on the ceiling. In 1899, while construction of the Museum was well under way, Isabella acquired The Coronation of Hebe, then attributed to Veronese. Gardner commissioned gilded paneling in Milan to frame the work in appropriate splendor. Rather than focusing on a single style or period, Isabella assembled around it a splendid mixture of objects that span diverse times and places. Stamped and painted leather panels from Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands line the walls. Gilded china saucers, cups, and a pitcher glisten on a small table at the room’s center. Balancing the stunning and huge Coronation on the ceiling are several pastels executed on an intimate scale by Isabella’s contemporary, James McNeill Whistler. 

Crossing the Long Gallery, a young lady stops me in my tracks –

Attributed to Paolo Uccello (1397 – 1475)
A Young Lady of Fashion, early 1460s

The portrait has a highly decorative quality in which costume and ornament play a major role. The rather flatly modeled face is placed on an insubstantial bust set against a uniform blue background. The woman is portrayed both according to literary notions of female pulchritude, which called for fair skin and blonde hair, and the dictates of contemporary fashion. Costly brocaded fabrics, pearls, and precious stones serve not only to display the sitter’s familial wealth and status but also to enhance her physical appearance – in art, as in life. In addition to a red and gold brocade sleeve and a sleeveless overdress, the woman wears a head brooch, a pearl choker with jeweled pendant, and a white cap ornamented with pearls.

This fashionable beauty looks impassive, immobile, and immutable, as if she were outside space and time. Her portrait image has a static, stereotyped character, in which the sitter’s individuality is almost entirely suppressed in favor of the social ideals for which she stands.

Bought as a work by Domenico Veneziano, the portrait has also been attributed to Paolo Uccello and the so-called Master of the Castello Nativity.

Source: David Alan Brown, “A Young Lady of Fashion,” in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 50.

The Chapel –

at the far west end of the Long Gallery, houses a consecrated altar that was used by Isabella Stewart Gardner–a devout Anglo-Catholic–for the celebration of Mass. Its function as an active sacred space persists to this day. Every April, as specified in Isabella’s will, a memorial service honors her memory. Liturgical items, including an early 17th century Italian carved ivory crucifix and a cloth that Gardner crocheted herself, adorn the altar table. A magnificent Gothic stained-glass window from the cathedral of Soissons in France stands as the centerpiece of the Chapel.

And last, but not least, Isabella Gardner herself, gracing the Gothic Room –

Mrs. Gardner sat for Sargent during his visit to Boston in January 1888. He was paid $3000 for the portrait, which was exhibited to great acclaim at Boston’s St. Botolph Club. The work also inspired gossip and legend: someone jokingly titled it “Woman: An Enigma,” while others believed that the sensuous display of flesh deliberately echoed the scandal recently created by Sargent’s Madame X. Mrs. Gardner herself said that she rejected eight renderings of the face until she was satisfied. Jack Gardner seems to have asked his wife not to publicly show the portrait again while he was alive, and indeed the portrait was placed in the Gothic Room, which remained private until Mrs. Gardner’s death. In its gallery, surrounded by altarpieces, stained glass, and religious statuary, the sacramental quality noted by nineteenth-century reviewers is even more pronounced.

Source: Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 204.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

May 4th, 2017

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