The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a museum known for its different takes on public displays of art. The patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner, had been one of the leading female art patrons during the mid 1800s. Born in New York City on April 14, 1840, Gardner always had a passion for travel, which she ultimately discovered and fell in love with Venice, Italy.
Whenever Gardner visited Venice, she would reside in the Palazzo Barbaro, constructed by Giovanni Bon in 1425, where the front of the palace would face the river. Indeed, upon entrance into the museum, one would be faced with the beautiful courtyard framed with the walls similar to the walls of the Palazzo Barbaro. Each wall was adorned with windows of two curved arches complete with a marble balcony, a style unique to Venice’s architectural design. When I stood on the balcony on the second or third story and observed the courtyard, I felt like I was reliving Gardner’s experience of observing the scenery from her room in Venice. The windows themselves bring air and light into the building. In fact, the lighting of each room and the building overall were provided by natural sunlight.
The vegetation itself was strongly associated with Gardner’s identity because she chose to include flower and plants that coordinated with a season. In other words, the seasonal change of the vegetation reflected the living state of the museum as the museum used to be her residence. To have the courtyard change its appearance in accordance with every season gave the courtyard itself a feeling of residency.
The courtyard was the focus of the museum as the building was structured to revolve around the garden. Each room of the building was especially personalized to signify Gardner’s identity as a woman. The colors of each room were soft and rather dull, which contributed to the personal aspect of the museum and displayed each room as a residential space. Within each room were glass cases containing letters Gardner had received and written to her friends as well as photographs of her family and Gardner herself at different stages of her life.
In fact, these photographs and letters as well as the overall design of each room signify the personal and emotional atmosphere of the museum. Gardner wants her audience to be able to learn from her experience living as a woman in the mid and late 1800s. She wants to flaunt herself as a woman who had a passion for traveling and learning for Western culture was not the sole focus of the museum. Hidden in narrow and dark rooms adjacent to the large rooms were folded Japanese paintings of nature and residential life, which represent Gardner’s travels in Asia. Gardner herself was a woman who nourished a love for intellectual curiosity in foreign cultures. She also displays this in one of the rooms labeled “The Chinese Room,” which contains Chinese artifacts such as pots and sculptures, for she had visited China as a young child.
But the addition to the original building, which was designed by Renzo Piano in 2012, was a mystery to me. Juxtaposed with the main building, it seemed out of place because the original building was more personal and residential, so the addition represented more of the public museum. It was modern in its style and design, adorned with glass walls and metal poles. It seemed like it was attempting to have a dialogue with the main building, but it was still separate. The atmosphere of the addition was also extremely different, as the visitor would not feel at home but rather like a stranger. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the addition to the overall museum despite its clean and organized structure as it felt out of place. But nevertheless, the Calderwood Hall within the addition was beautiful in its vertical and symmetrical structure. It wasn’t something that I had seen before in typical concert halls.
Overall, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is Gardner’s home. The furniture and clothing displayed in each room had the status of a work of art despite their original use as personal utilities. The axial symmetry of the museum contributed to the sense of personal identity as each room fit together perfectly to become a representation of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.