Beacon Bonds: Stop #1 – Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Beacon Bonds: Stop #1 – Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Titian Room.

Opened in 1903 by art enthusiast & collector Isabella Stewart, the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston exists as a wholly unique place and experience. The building, designed by architect William T. Sears and constructed 1899-1901 when there were very few properties yet in the Fens area, boasts three floors of historic galleries and a private fourth floor which once purposed as Isabella’s personal residence.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner is famous and beloved for the fact that it is anything but a traditional art museum. Rather than the typical clean, empty showrooms we have become familiar with among the vast majority of large-scale art museums, the Gardner Museum seems to have been designed with an intention and attention to detail which is unmatched; Isabella intended for the space to exist as a place of beauty – with her personal touches seen all around the building, from the imported grand European fireplaces and crafted tile flooring, to the seasonal plants and flowers which span the interior central courtyard year-round, the Garden is a space built mindfully for aesthetic balance, expression, and comfort. Isabella Stewart claimed to have wanted all to feel welcome in her museum, and that intent shows through to this day. There seems to be a shared feeling of gravitation and peace among those perusing the buildings long halls and arched corridors, and I experience no different. Throughout her life, Isabella acquired, installed, and updated the art within the museum at her own will, with a passed-on promise that the museum would remain as a place for “the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”

In 1990, a still-unsolved infamous heist took place— and the empty frames from which those pieces were cut remain hanging on the wall for visitors to view today. The amount of fascination that the Gardner Museum continues to spark to this day is no wonder; it is a must-see gem of the city and perfect first stop for our Beacon Bonds series.

John Singer Sergeant, Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner

The Gardner’s Titian exhibit on the third floor of the museum has recently re-opened to the public following a restoration closure. I, of course, made a prompt visit to remind myself once again why I love this museum so much.

As I took my time walking around the various galleries, particularly on the upper floors, I began to notice the abundance of portraits that hung on the walls of each room. Beacon Gallery’s most recently displayed show, Coded, focused on the ways in which artists encode messages into their work, how we interpret those meanings, and how exactly viewers of art end up passing along those messages to others. As this theme hovered around in my head, I became fixed on examining the ways in which these historic portraits displayed intentions of past lives very distant yet connected to our own.

What is the subject of the painting trying to say in the objects they place near them, clothing, their posture, facial expression, etc? What is, then, the artist looking to come across in the ways they chose to depict these things? What is the curator or museum hoping a viewer will see or experience through the choice of frame, placement, or lighting? 

Shown: Bartolommeo Bandinelli, Self-Portrait

I chose to sample the paintings shown here as I feel these aspects come through rather clearly.  The piece painted by Bartolommeo (or Baccio) Bandinelli is a self-portrait circa 1530. We see Bartolommeo sitting center with a drawing and device in his left hand, and his right hand pointing at said drawing. Clearly, it seems the artist is pointing to his existence as an artist, showing to the audience one of his creations. That being said, why? And, on top of that, why did the artist choose to depict certain other details in this painting – for instance, the clothing and necklace he wears, his sitting stance with legs crossed, his lack of shoes? These, among details of some of the other portraits I photographed while at the museum, are up to the viewer to determine. The portrait shown above, a painting of Isabella, herself, created by John Singer Sargent, is one that promotes many speculations and mystique. One might notice, in particular, the subtle pattern which forms a halo around her head.

On this same thread, a reality of the current-day Gardner museum one can’t help but notice is the impressive number of visitors posing to capture selfies around the museum. What I’ll leave us with for now is: what are these people trying to communicate through a selfie at the Gardner? With any selfie? What do we hope the viewers of our own selfies will decode?

The endless codes held in artwork, whether they be from artists of many years ago now showcased in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, or currently-practicing contemporary artists whose work hangs today in Beacon Gallery’s showroom, the subject of encoding and decoding messages in art is one that is shared. The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is just one amazing bond that Beacon Gallery shares in its home of Boston that you surely should not miss. ‘Til next time!

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