Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum [source]
Why, oh why, did it take us six months of living here before we finally got ourselves over to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? Perhaps it’s because we were biased by so many American museums with pre-1945 collections that feel as sleepy and dusty as a great-aunt’s parlor (The Huntington and Norton-Simon spring to mind). Surely a museum bearing such a flowery gilded-age lady’s moniker, featuring her personal collection peppered with Singer Sargents, would be as fussy and yawn-inducing as museum’s come.
Please pass some humble pie — I deserve a full serving.
It’s rare that Murray and I truly linger in art museums, and even rarer that we meander back to see a gallery in a museum on the same trip, just to soak it up further. Yet we spent most of the afternoon wandering around the magical ISGM, pulling back the quaint velvet curtains covering the rickety wood and glass vitrines to see handwritten letters by Dante; opening cabinet doors covered in drawings, fascinated by the terse typed sign saying “STOLEN” where one of Degas’ drawings used to hang; comparing Giotto’s Christ child with Botticelli’s with Martini’s with da Rimini’s in the Long Gallery and Gothic rooms on the third floor.
And we lingered further, listening to the xylophonist of a contemporary sextet warming up before a concert in the Tapestry room, leaning over the balcony overlooking the courtyard, taking mental notes about the wall hangings curving around corners, the Italian bed-frames used as railings, the layering of patterns, textures, styles, periods.
How perfect that the ISGM has a vibrant artist-in-residence program that has featured over fifty contemporary artists, including Laura Owens, and Henrik Håkansson: this is a museum for artists.
Virtually unchanged since its origination under the careful and inventive hand of Mrs. Gardner, this museum reads more like a large-scale assemblage of art and objects than a clinical exhibition out of an art history text book. The museum invites the viewer into an intimate and homey place for contemplation, for wonder, for close observation, for shared transcendent experience. That’s about as cutting edge as museums get.