Arts

behind the scene

New Gardner Museum installation aspires to founder’s wishes

Artist Rachel Perry Welty stands in front of her work “What Do You Really Want?” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Dina Rudick/globe staff
Artist Rachel Perry Welty stands in front of her work “What Do You Really Want?” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

What: “What Do You Really Want?,” a new installation by artist Rachel Perry Welty

At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, through June. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org

Rachel Perry Welty found the text for her new installation on the façade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in her spam folder. Welty, whose art revels in discovering poetry in the detritus of life, has been dipping into her spam for years, offering tidbits of text in a font rendered from crumpled tin foil. This one asks an essential question: What do you really want?

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The color of the backdrop — a blue reminiscent of deep twilight — was one answer to that question for Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, who left detailed records of how her art should be displayed. In Italy, she had visited the collection of Italian antiquarian dealer Stefano Bardini, and been struck by the color of his walls.

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“Will you please someday get a piece of paper with the blue colour that Bardini has on his walls,” she wrote to her art dealer, Bernard Berenson, in 1900, “I want the exact tint.” She ultimately had the Grand Staircase and the Long Gallery painted what Gardner insiders call Bardini blue.

Welty spent a month living at the museum as artist-in-residence in 2014. “Every time I walked up the grand staircase, the incredible blue changes depending on what the light is like,” she said.

Gianfranco Pocobene, the museum’s chief conservator, has been researching the color for years. At Gardner’s behest, Berenson sought out a sample from Bardini and mailed it to Boston. Pocobene has the recipe (ultramarine green, ultramarine blue, whiting agents, glue), and the sample strip — or part of it.

“Gardner didn’t think it was right. She ripped the sample in half and sent it back to him,” he said. “The color she got from Bardini is not what she ended up putting on the wall.”

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The sample no doubt has faded over more than a century, but it is indeed greener than the blue that ended up on the museum walls. There are so many variables: the same blue in Florence may look different in the Fenway. Then, too, the color has changed as it has been replicated and painted over.

The Gardner’s original Bardini blue was water soluble; Pocobene found traces of the original beneath layers of newer paint. Water soluble paint rubs off easily, so it was replaced with oil paint, and then latex paint. Both are shinier than the original, which had a powdery, matte texture.

That affects the eye’s perception of the color. Recently, working with paint specialists, Pocobene has had the walls at one end of the Long Gallery repainted using silica paint. The contrast between the old latex paint at one end of the gallery and the fresher coat at the other is startling. The art pops against the new, less shiny blue. Because it absorbs light rather than reflecting it, the new blue feels seductively spacious; it makes its counterpart down the hallway look drab.

Of course, Welty didn’t use the silica paint in “What Do You Really Want,” which is a large-scale print.

“Bardini blue was dear to [Gardner’s] heart. We think this is what she wanted. We don’t really know what she wanted, but we make arguments based on her will,” Welty said. “Do any of us know what we really want?”

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CATE MCQUAID

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.