Posted by: irisestellerobinson | December 14, 2014

The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

All the way back during Fall break I visited Boston for the first time with my mother, who was visiting from England. By chance we ended up at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum because we though we didn’t have time for the Museum of Fine Arts.

I was immediately enamoured with the idea of the museum. Gardner, who was considered an outrageous women during her life, designed and built the building as a museum to display her vast art collection. Gardner’s will stipulated that the collection stay on display in the same way as she designed it after her death. Because of this decision the museum to me offered a unique insight into the life and mind of Gardner, who to me seems to be an incredibly interesting figure.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a remarkable woman, she refused to be constrained by the social expectations of her situation, at the end of the Victorian era in Boston. She travelled the world and collected many rare art works and artefacts as well as befriending and supporting the artists and writers of her day including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Anders Zorn and Henry James. There are several portraits of Gardner, some of which were extremely controversial at the time of their production. One pictures her in a black dress, a portrait Gardner commissioned herself. The painting is by John Singer Sargent, Gardner’s close friend. Upon the portrait’s first public display it received many negative comments. This was mostly because her posture was deemed too bold for a woman, her gaze meets the eye of the observer and seems to be appraising. The neckline and silhouette of her dress was judged to be too plunging and daring for the 47 year old it pictured. These comments upset Gardner’s husband so the portrait was not displayed in public while he lived. It now takes pride of place in the Gothic room on the third floor of the museum and I found it immediately striking. It shows Gardner as strong and authoritative, which was very refreshing, she was not a “woman looking sideways”, but someone intelligent and daring for her time, refusing to adhere to society’s expectations.

The museum today has a large glass fronted extension but originally walking into Gardner’s creation the first thing you come to is the courtyard. The space has a classical feel with its arches and columns and various reproduction and original statues. Immediately I noticed the sort of patchwork quality of the layout, with pieces seemingly scattered about the grass. But at the same time there was obviously real skill with how the garden was put together. The whole museum was built surrounding this open air centre and as I continued to explore the three floors of the museum I discovered that the garden was visible from each, and it was stunning from every angle. The piece which stood out the most for me within the courtyard area was a large terracotta fallen vase, in a classical Greek shape. It rested on its side at an angle on a small bank in front of a fountain.  While it was arguably the most plain piece in the whole garden there was something which struck me at the way it seemed to have just landed in its place, very casually and seemingly without care. At the same time however it seems impossible to me to imagine the garden without it. This feeling I had just from looking at this urn made me realise the skill with which Gardener assembled her museum, at once appearing effortless and calculated.

I feel that the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is a unique place. It was purpose built and designed around the pieces it houses. The rooms themselves therefore become works of art in their own right, painstaking decorated to accompany the art works in a particular way. While I explored the place I was reminded of the Walter Benjamin essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. The Garner Museum acts as an enhancer for the aura of original works of art. At a time when the industrial revolution had really taken hold, instead of revelling in the accessibility of reproduced works of art, Gardner cultivated and revelled in the uniqueness of the work of art. Rather than hanging pieces on a blank emotionless classical gallery wall she surrounds the viewer with colour, complimentary artefacts (and even live music while she was still alive and living in the museum). The effect is a full sensory immersion which brings art to life. I would challenge anyone who considers art to be boring or outdated to visit the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum and maintain that opinion.


  1. It’s funny that you mention the portrait of ISG by Sargent. I spent a bit of time this semester studying another Sargent portrait in one of my Art History classes: that of Madame X. Madame X provides for a very interesting comparison to the ISG portrait. Both display the women in low-cut black dresses. Iris mentions that the ISG portrait elicited negative feedback for it’s daring and controversial qualities and was not displayed publicly until the death of Mr. Gardner; in fact, the Madame X portrait was actually received with even more reproach than the ISG. Originally, Sargent had painted Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X)–a Louisiana-born, later well-known Parisian socialite–with one of the dress straps slipping off of her shoulder. This received such strong backlash that Sargent was forced to edit the painting, erasing and repainting the strap so that is sat tautly in place. Of course, the piece is still very progressive and scandalous, even with the modification.

    What I find most intriguing, though, is the positioning of the women’s heads, as this is where the differences between the two portraits lie. ISG looks unapologetically and pointedly at us. She clasps her hands in a seemingly feminine way; yet, her posture reflects that more of a man. She is establishing herself as an equal to men by adopting masculine qualities and posing in a strong and deliberate way. Contrastingly, Madame X’s head is craned rigidly facing over her left shoulder. She does not stare in our direction at all; but that does not diminish her sense of power. Positioning her head in this manner opens up her body and chest in a vulnerable way; a vulnerability that Madame X seems to reject with her boldness. Who do we think makes a stronger statement about nonconformity and independence? Does ISG’s status as an intellectual inspire us to prefer her portrait over that of a socialite with less than exemplary narrative? Or do we prefer Madame X because it was more shocking and strongly rejected the standards and expectations of the time?

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