My recent visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was by no means my first; however, it does represent the first time that I viewed this space with an eye towards understanding Mrs. Gardner’s place as an important nineteenth century collector of (mostly European) art. In particular, I was interested in exploring her relationship to the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement, founded in London in 1848, which rejected classicism in favor of the romantic and spiritual views that these artists felt were especially characteristic of medieval art.
I have been visiting this museum for many years, though not long enough to have seen the items stolen in the notorious art theft of 1990. Because this is a house-museum whose display was stipulated by Mrs. Gardner to remain unchanged from her original design, the now-missing items – most notably Boston’s only Vermeer (The Concert) and a rare Rembrandt seascape (The Storm on the Sea of Galilee) are still remembered through their empty frames. These vacancies cast a somewhat forlorn atmosphere to the Dutch room, but they are also an invitation to connect this collection to a bygone era, which for my purposes here is that of the Pre-Raphaelites.
The museum has changed since I first encountered it – now the visitor enters through a new modern wing designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano. This new building, which contains a visitor’s center, a café, a museum store and a temporary exhibit space, is an airy light-filled glassed in area, full of vibrant orange and red colors. While pleasant to visit, I find it somewhat of a jarring contrast to the original part of the Gardner Museum, which is entered via a glass-enclosed walkway.
The new entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Making this quick journey, I am immediately confronted with the magical scene of Fenway Court, a courtyard of what looks like an Italian palace, marked by gothic arches and ornate balconied windows. The entire three-story museum is built around this courtyard, which was completed in 1901, and is filled with flowers, Roman mosaics, Italian stone sculptures and a fountain.
One view of the courtyard in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Seeing this beautiful site reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite art critic and artist John Ruskin, who in 1853 wrote the important architectural volume, The Stones of Venice. Much of the architecture in Venice is medieval in its structural details, a style favored by Ruskin and other Pre-Raphaelites whose paintings reflected this period.
The first page of “The Nature of the Gothic”, a chapter in the second volume of Stones of Venice.
I have read that Mrs. Gardner often rented a Venetian Palace on the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Barbaro, and was inspired by that setting to create this Boston building. In the 1890’s, Mrs. Gardner brought the Swedish artist Anders Zorn to the Palazzo Barbaro, where he was stimulated to paint her excitement at seeing fireworks through an open window. This picture now hangs in the short gallery on the second floor.
Anders Zorn, Mrs. Gardner in Venice
So Mrs. Gardner’s choice of setting, as well as her extensive collection of early European art, suggests a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility, though she reportedly never expressed such a philosophy. And her interest in medieval subjects is apparent in the Raphael Room, also on the second floor. Apart from a few Raphaels, this room also contains two painters who were favorites of this group. The first of these is Carlo Crivelli, whose emotionally-charged work of 1470 shows St. George slaying a dragon who had demanded a virgin sacrifice.
Carlo Crivelli, Saint George and the Dragon
Another important source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites was Sandro Botticelli. His 1504 painting at the Gardner depicts Lucretia killing herself to defend her honor after being raped by a Roman official. This tragic and emotionally sensitive work was reportedly Mrs. Gardner’s first purchase of a significant Italian painting.
Sandro Botticelli, Tragedy of Lucretia
Given this resonance with Pre-Raphaelite themes, I decided to look for Pre-Raphaelite paintings in Mrs. Gardner’s collection. I found a painting by the important Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rosetti in the small Yellow Room off the courtyard. This work was created in 1861 and reportedly stemmed from an illustration in Rosetti’s own translation of early Italian poets. The emotional tone and the medieval influences on this work are striking – it could almost be placed next to paintings created four hundred years earlier. I was surprised to discover that this painting by Rossetti appeared to be the only work by a Pre-Raphaelite artist in Mrs. Gardner’s extensive collection. Nonetheless, in her selection of paintings and in her choice of setting in which to display them, she demonstrates a certain extent of affinity with this artistic group.
Goldfarb, Hilliard T. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Print.
Zorzi, Rosella Mamoli, Ed. Henry James’s Letters to Isabella Stewart Gardner. London: Pushkin Press, 2009. Print.
“2012 GardnerMuseum Boston USA 1” by M2545 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2012_GardnerMuseum_Boston_USA_1.jpg#/media/File:2012_GardnerMuseum_Boston_USA_1.jpg
“Kelmscott Press – The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin (first page)” by Kelmscott Press, William Morris, John Ruskin – Springfield, Massachusetts, library system – en:Image:Kelmscott Press – The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin (first page).jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kelmscott_Press_-_The_Nature_of_Gothic_by_John_Ruskin_(first_page).jpg#/media/File:Kelmscott_Press_-_The_Nature_of_Gothic_by_John_Ruskin_(first_page).jpg
“Zorn, Anders – Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice – 1894” by Anders Zorn – http://www.gardnermuseum.org/collection/artwork/2nd_floor/short_gallery/isabella_stewart_gardner_in_venice?filter=artist:3153. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zorn,_Anders_-_Isabella_Stewart_Gardner_in_Venice_-_1894.jpg#/media/File:Zorn,_Anders_-_Isabella_Stewart_Gardner_in_Venice_-_1894.jpg
“Carlo Crivelli – Saint George Slaying the Dragon, 1470” by Carlo Crivelli (circa 1435–circa 1495) – . Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carlo_Crivelli_-_Saint_George_Slaying_the_Dragon,_1470.jpg#/media/File:Carlo_Crivelli_-_Saint_George_Slaying_the_Dragon,_1470.jpg
“Suicide lucretia” by Sandro Botticelli – http://www.gardnermuseum.org/collection/artwork/2nd_floor/raphael_room/the_tragedy_of_lucretia?filter=artist:3161. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suicide_lucretia.jpg#/media/File:Suicide_lucretia.jpg