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Gardner’s museum: Majestic, eccentric

When her crew of painters could not produce just the right sun-dappled stucco effect on the walls of Fenway Court, the lady of the manse, Isabella Stewart Gardner, mounted the scaffolding herself and sponged on pink and white paint.

Gardner, in her early 60’s at the time, took obsessive care with every detail of Fenway Court, the house that she had planned from the outset to be a museum, and which many people called a palace.

During the construction, which occupied her from 1899-1902, she was virtually her own foreman -- bossing workers, hiring and firing, and announcing that she wanted Fenway Court heated by fireplaces because hot air registers are ugly.


This extraordinary woman showed the world that being a Boston Brahmin-by- marriage did not mean being dull. Her Fenway Court, modeled after a Venetian palazzo, grew into what art historian Anne Higonnet calls one of the world’s three greatest house museums, whose only peers are The Frick Collection in New York and The Wallace Collection in London. Last year, over 145,000 people visited the Gardner.

Isabella Gardner was a daring and determined woman, who borrowed for her motto the French saying “C’est mon plaisir,” which can be read as either ‘‘my pleasure” or “my will.”

Her character came out in the infamous portrait of her by John Singer Sargent: Her decolletage is low, her jewels ostentatious, and she stands against a brocade whose pattern obligingly forms a round shape that could be read as halo or crown. After an initial exhibition at Boston’s St. Botolph Club in 1888, the painting was withdrawn from public view by Gardner’s husband, and was not shown again until after her death in 1924.

Meanwhile, she had created one of the world’s great art museums, in a four- story building centered around a flower- and sculpture-filled courtyard that is one of the most pleasant places in Boston. Here Gardner installed her holdings of about 2,000 art objects, spanning more than thirty centuries. She had bought Early Renaissance works then called “Italian Primitives,” great Chinese bronzes, and the first painting by Matisse to enter an American museum.


To assemble that collection, she had used money, power, aggressiveness and sometimes the advice of a young Lithuanian immigrant named Bernard Berenson, who would become one of the most revered of art historians.

She coaxed the loan of Sargent’s great “El Jaleo” from T. Jefferson Coolidge and never gave it back: She simply built it into what amounts to a Boston translation of a Spanish cloister so it would have been all but impossible to remove.

At first, her husband Jack helped her collect. But after his death in 1898, she carried on alone, planning to house her holdings in a museum in the Fenway, a part of Boston that was not so crowded as the Beacon Hill neighborhood where she and her husband had made their home.

Fenway Court became a majestic and eccentric place, with masterpieces displayed against a setting of red or green brocade-covered walls, parquet floors and gilded furniture. Sometimes she located objects peculiarly -- so high they virtually cannot be seen, or so close to a window that the glare bouncing off glass renders what is underneath all but invisible. She stipulated in her will that objects remain where she had placed them during her lifetime, and with some exceptions -- objects loaned to other museums or removed for conservation -- they have.


Until yesterday’s theft, which will probably sour the atmosphere of the Gardner Museum for some time to come, the place felt like a home, with such cozy domestic touches as a little vase of violets or a table laid out as if for tea. There was often the eerie sense that Gardner herself might walk into one of the 15 galleries that exist in a sort of esthetic time-warp.

During her lifetime, Gardner entertained friends and dignitaries lavishly in Fenway Court. In the tradition of the English aristocrats who would routinely show their treasures to anyone who knocked at the country house door, she would occasionally admit the public, in batches of 200, to Fenway Court to admire her possessions. In those gentler times, she sometimes acted as her own security guard.

While stories of Gardner’s oddities abound, her role as shrewd and serious priestess of high culture had been downplayed until resurrected by Higonnet, who has called the Gardner Museum “one of the 19th century’s most outstanding examples of a brilliantly successful cultural strategy devised and executed by a woman.” Part of that strategy, Higonnet believes, was Gardner’s provision, in her will, that the director of the museum live on its fourth floor, so that the museum would continue to function as a home. In a 1987 decision made in the wake of the Museum’s financial difficulties and the scrapping of an expansion plan, the trustees decided that the fourth floor was needed for other uses. The Museum’s new director, Anne Hawley, is the first in its history to live outside the building.


The Gardner had difficulties, of a lesser magnitude, even before yesterday’s tragic theft. Yet it remains a personal triumph for its creator. As Henry Adams wrote to Isabella Gardner on the topic of Fenway Court, “As long as such a work can be done, I will not despair of our age. . .”