Elegant art in Boston
A recent work trip took me to Boston, where visiting cultural organizations was on the docket.
You know that friend of yours with the impossibly cool apartment? The generous yet bit-insecure-about-her-looks friend with the incredibly eclectic taste and eye for color whose life is clearly together because her abode looks like it walked out of Elle Decor.
Now imagine that woman is a socialite in Boston in the early 1900s and you have Isabella Stewart Gardner. Luckily, unlike your friend’s apartment, you can visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum any time. And her space, literally called The Palace, is filled to the brim with her hoard of treasures. One of the plaques on the wall states her inheritance of $1.6 million is when she started to collect art “seriously” but perhaps a better word is “obsessively” or “compulsively”. Art, artifacts, vestments, and furniture collected over a lifetime fill the haunting hallways which surround a central courtyard of brilliant light.
I could spend paragraphs trying to describe the splendor to you or dedicate an entire Instagram feed carefully documenting the rare art and manuscripts. There are gardens and hidden spaces and the interplay of light and dark rule throughout. ISGM has a exciting and scandalous art theft history. And yet, wandering this century-old mansion, the art and its past fade away. The visitor is only driven further and further into one question: who was this woman?
I’ve been to house museums (Anderson House in DC is a favorite) - they tend to be stoic and preserved relics of the past. An ancient mausoleum holding the remnants of an ancient family’s ancient money, filled with the unattainable dreams of a golden age that privileged few were able to enjoy. None have the character and pronounced aesthetic that Isabella’s does.
ISGM is alive. A modern education center hosts performance art. The cafe’s design, menu, and experience are delightfully considered and curated. A seriously stylish library space would lend itself well to a gloriously tranquil afternoon. An exhibition (a soundscape when I attended) brought the Palatial rooms to life with artist’s interpretations. And all that before one reaches the resplendence of the second and third floors with treasures so sacred and delicate they’re hidden behind cloth in their glass cases. AND YET those protective sheets are embroidered to say ‘lift me’ so as to assuage the visitors’ fears - this space is still for you. You are welcome here.
And so while you ostensibly contemplate the art, you actually contemplate the woman. Amid the ancient pews and European fireplaces is hidden what seemed to be a telling clue. A display of laces, most elegant and intricate, prominently features a simple rustic design. It's as though Isabella is reminding us that beauty is found in all manner of things. Her presence can be felt through every space in the museum. Even in the public bathrooms, printed tiles proclaim her truisms. Personal favorite: “Win as though you were used to it and lose as though you liked it.” There is a stairwell that you cannot descend but has the note that this used to lead to Isabella’s private sanctuary. This is a woman who is both here, and of course due to her death in 1924, removed. A woman who collected so manically - and to what cause? What drives a person to do such a thing? Love for her city could be one reason - and plaques proclaim that multiple times over, this museum is a gift to the city of Boston. To be remembered forever is another. Surely, as long as her Palace stands, she will never be forgotten.
ISGM is has routine hours, but if you’re in town on the third Thursday of any given month, you should check out their late night programming.