The Secret in Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner
By Sally Logan
The secret in Boston is not, who took the art treasures in 1990, or why the spaces are left vacant now. Bare walls with silk brocade as wall coverings framed for each one missing art piece.
We bought tickets at the front; we were among the first few patrons of the day. Nothing unusual here, just another donation to a museum to see what they have that might be called treasures. Never having heard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, I was stunned as we walked into the entryway and on, arriving at the courtyard. Never, ever had I seen a museum so different in its initial presentation and the beauty of this first glimpse into a journey that would leave me breathless at the end, and is with me, still. A lingering, ‘takes your breath away’, lump in your throat, feeling that was not there, just at the beginning, but stayed, to the last glimpse.
After the courtyard, I can still see El Jaleo in my mind and the postcard I bought that would sit on my desk to remind me that a ‘ruckus’ is a physical act, but the feeling that the museum and the walk up to John Singer Sargent’s 2nd or 3rd most famous painting was a stirring in my being, and visceral at the time. Isabella Gardner has made clear that nothing in the collection should ever be ‘transferred or moved or in any way changed, to make an exhibition.
She called it ‘a palace’; her museum. And Isabella spent a lifetime finding just the right pieces that she loved and are without a doubt, an exhibition of her skill at curating as a masterful art in itself.
As you approach the life size work, El Jaleo; meaning ‘ruckus’ in Spanish, you only later notice that the subtle shadow created by a second framing of the Moroccan panel that sets the large painting back from the audience. You only notice this setting as you turn to look to take one last glimpse, while walking away from this scene created by John Singer Sargent and Isabella Gardner. The setting as if in a diaspora, makes one feel the need to be close up, but in awe and understanding why one must stand back. Isabella understood the full impact of the life size Flamenco dancer and guitarists with light focused on the white and floor length flamenco skirt and one arm outstretched, must be viewed as she intended and the Moorish curves of the white doorframe surely are exactly what is needed to place the onlooker at just the right distance. Stunning, in this setting and with just the right light on that white Flamenco skirt, imposed by the artist, a visual masterpiece by both artist and curator.
The museum has all the mystery and intrigue surrounding it; due to Ms. Gardner’s life story and the making of the museum, as well as the theft of the paintings in 1990 that has never been solved.
While there might be more worthy museums, with rotating exhibits and travelling solo artists, but none can stir the juices of your very being and create a sense of great joy, as this well-kept secret in Boston. Isabella meant to create ‘an impression’ everywhere she went and you will be as intrigued as this now devoted follower, after your first visit to ‘Isabella’s Palace’ .