Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Boston's Eclectic Gem

General Joseph Hooker sits astride his horse at the Massachusetts State House
The following blog post was written on October 9, but being published now. Thanks for your patience!

Today we landed in Boston and we came here two years ago, walking part of the Freedom Trail before heading to other spots like Harvard and Boston Common.

This time around the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was on my list, but it didn't open until 11am so we first visited the Massachusetts State House, not too far from Quincy Market – where a new Uniqlo outlet opened today to the beat of taiko drums.

Part of the stained glass window on independence
The Massachusetts State House is quite grand, with a statue of Hooker on a horse. After a security check we were allowed to wander around certain areas on our own, or follow a guided tour.

The building was designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798, measuring only 65 feet wide at the time. The cornerstone was laid July 4, 1795, by Governor Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Another interesting fact is that the State House is on the land where John Hancock used to have a cow pasture.

The House of Representatives is in there, but my favourite parts of the building are the gorgeous mosaic floors and the stained glass window in the Great Hall, which shows the evolution of the Massachusett's state seal. The state motto in Latin means: "By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty".

Uniqlo just opened its latest store in Quincy Market
Then we headed over to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. There is a new addition to the place, including a covered walkway to the actual house.

Isabella Stewart (1840-1924) was born in New York and married Bostonian John Lowell Gardner Jr ("Jack") in 1860. His family was in the shipping business, doing a lot of trade in China in lacquerware and silk. They originally lived on 152 Beacon Street.

They had a son called Jacky, but he died at two years of age. She tried to conceive again, but had a miscarriage. Isabella was very depressed and the doctor advised that she take a six-month holiday.

They traveled around Europe and with the money she had inherited from her father (importing linens and selling off her grandmother's farms on Long Island), she received $1.7 million at the time, which would have been worth $25 million.

A symbol of the Freedom Trail on the ground
She began buying up museum-quality pieces like Rembrandt, Titian and Giotto, and expanded to furniture, textiles, giant wooden Chinese screens, porcelain and even massive palazzo windows from Italy. Isabella preferred Italian art and architecture over French which was in vogue at the time.

Another interesting fact is that being a businessman he recorded all of his wife's acquisitions, so the museum must have a tally of everything she bought.

When she accumulated a massive collection of things, she began planning to house them all. At first they bought the property next door to them on Beacon Street, but it soon became clear it was going to be too small.

Her husband died in 1890 and Isabella continued her project, and bought a piece of land near Fenway Park. Fen means "swamp", and the area was previously swamp land that was filled in.

The Isabella Gardner Museum courtyard
While she hired an architect, it was Isabella who really designed the building to look like a palazzo, particularly from the inside. The courtyard was the original entrance to the home, and she lived on the fourth floor, which is now the residence of the museum director.

The museum, which Isabella called Fenway Court, was opened in 1903.

At first one isn't quite sure what is going on, except that she did collect lots of stuff. However, following a guided tour, we find that things may have been deliberately placed in certain ways and places, that may encourage visitors to make their own associations.

That's because all the items in the museum are placed exactly where she had put them, and it was stipulated in her will that nothing be moved in any way, otherwise all the items had to be auctioned off and the proceeds donated to Harvard.

The museum has the tricky task of having to ask the Attorney General for permission to make changes to the building, such as widening certain areas for wheelchair accessibility and moving certain items to make way for a glass-covered walkway.

A gorgeous sarcophagus from Italy that is in the courtyard
The rooms in the home range from small and narrow to massive and grand, each filled to the brim with paintings, tapestries, all kinds of items, and furniture. An amateur curator, Isabella mixed the religious with pagan.

One painting, probably from a church, was of the Archangel Michael and she bought it from a friend of hers, hinting to him over dinner that it would make a great addition to the room they were dining in.

It does look great above the fireplace that matches the painting with creatures carved into it.

Or there's a painting by Titian of Europa, and a sketch of the original nearby, or a painting of the Annunciation, with a secular picture of a woman, but she is wearing similar coloured robes to Mary in the painting, and on the other side is a painting of Mary holding baby Jesus, and on the table there's a sculpture of a cherub, and another of a foot.

Is Isabella expecting us to make these associations, or is this just her clever or intriguing way to put things together?

The rooms are kept in as original state as possible, which means some rooms are darker than others. There are also no labels next to the paintings and one has to look them up in nearby plastic cards to identify them.

The ironic thing about visiting this museum is that even though the place was originally a home, one hardly feels comfortable here because the security guards are constantly warning us not to get too close to a piece of furniture or painting. One practically feels anxious and hardly relaxed in there!

Next to the courtyard is a Spanish chapel, with a picture of Mary and Jesus. The baby, our guide said, looks very similar to her son Jacky, which is probably why she bought it.

When she died, she wrote in her will that her body be laid in the chapel near the portrait for a few days before it was buried. Nearby is a fantastic painting called El Jaleo or "the ruckus" by John Singer Sargent. It's so dynamic with a woman dancing in what looks like a cave with musicians in the background.

We also love the Roman sarcophagus lining the outside of the courtyard, though inside the mini garden is a child sarcophagus, probably alluding to her son.

In 1990, some paintings were stolen from the museum, including a Vermeer. The thieves posed as policemen and fooled the security guards, of which there were only two at the time.

The investigation is ongoing; they believe they know who stole them, but the whereabouts of the paintings is still unknown. There are two empty frames in the Dutch Room to signify two paintings used to be there, and that the museum is the rightful owner of them.

Isabella is such a fascinating character and we are so grateful she channeled her energy into collecting such a wide range of items. The museum is quite an eclectic gem.

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