TIO Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum & Turner at the MFA!

TIO Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum & Turner at the MFA!

She was a millionaire Bohemienne. He was a lower-middle-class prodigy. But what she said and what he said came to matter equally to those who understood (and generations later, understand) that the greatest works of art have many lives inside them. On a recent all-too-brief trip to Boston, we experienced the power  of art as witness, first through the hungry eyes of Isabella Stewart Gardner and her now-legendary museum, then through the work of the extraordinarily inventive, paradigm-shifting artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, now on display at the city’s Museum of Fine Art.



Victorians were shocked at Sargent’s bold display of Isabella’s radiant flesh.

Isabella Stewart Gardner & Her Museum:

Born in New York City in April 1840, just days before her twentieth birthday Isabella Stewart married John “Jack” Lowell Gardner and moved to his hometown of Boston. One journalist summed up the city’s new resident as “one of the seven wonders of Boston” and “a leader of the smart set.”

Following the death of a young child, the couple traveled extensively abroad and enjoyed the company of colorful, influential acquaintances. Isabella was also  drawn into intellectual and artistic elite circles in Boston that included the likes of Julia Ward Howe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry James, James McNeill Whistler, and F. Marion Crawford. Their invitation for her to attend readings by Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton triggered Isabella to begin collecting rare books and manuscripts.

The Gardners’ visit to London in 1886 led them to John Singer Sargent, who would play a very significant role in Isabella’s life as her portraitist and protégé. By 1894, her 10-year relationship with art historian Bernard Berenson had evolved into one of advisor and collector. Soon the Gardners’ home at 152 Beacon Street was chockablock with eye-popping works from all over the world. In the end,  however, it was Isabella’s purchase of Rembrandt’s 1629 “Self-Portrait” that inspired the couple to create a proper museum.

The Gardners chose The Fenway for its remote location, natural light and the new, beautifully landscaped park system created by Frederick Law Olmsted. They went on to create a Venetian palazzo like those they had visited in Italy, with grand public rooms, an interior courtyard, and a private apartment for their use.

On a January evening in 1903, guests were invited to a private opening of Fenway Court, complete with a concert by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Isabella Stewart Gardner’s museum opened to the general public one month later.

Today the Gardner Museum is home to  2,500 objects from ancient cultures to paintings – including Matisse, Titian’s masterpiece “The Rape of Europa, ” a minimalist art for art’s sake seascape by Whistler, and a variety of Sargent images, including an iconic portrait of Isabella wearing her signature long string of pearls, ruby attached – plus sculpture, drawings, prints, historical furniture, ceramics, glassware, books, and manuscripts.

“She lives at a rate and intensity, with a reality that makes other lives seem pale, thin and shadowy,” wrote Berenson about his “Medici.”

The day we visited Fenway the courtyard in the palace was filled with hanging nasturtiums and the mellifluous sounds of a harp. Life at that moment felt brightly colored, robust and, though overcast outside, filled with sunshine.

Go here to read more about the  Gardner Museum, including the ongoing story of the notorious theft in 1990 that robbed the world of 13 masterpieces.

Turner’s Modern World at the MFA (though July 10, 2022):

Was J.M.W. Turner a modernist who work resonates today? The theme of his show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art says it all: Man dangerously out of synch with Nature.

Turner Slave- Ship

The sprawling show features some of the Romantic artist’s most audacious and admirable works, including his most chilling, “Slave Ship ( or “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On”) from 1840, which the MFA has the honor to own.

Like all his painting the title leave little to the imagination and proves beyond a shadow of doubt that Turner was both an activist and a maverick, though he often confounded, even appalled his commentators and audiences. He was man of his times who espoused the notion first put forth by critic/writer/philosopher Baudelaire that art mirrors, even anticipates, the zeitgeist. And the zeitgeist  back then was driven by England’s seismic shift from pastoral landscapes to a country defined by industry and conquest.

Dark works like “Slave Ship” hang in the company of kinetic ,stormy seas and skies and blustering military conquests, all offset by watercolors that speak in a whisper, rather than shout.

According to one astute critic:

“He looked at contemporary events – the rapid industrialism of Britain and its impact on the landscape, political turbulence and international conflict, the building of the railways and the burning down of the Houses of Parliament — and he painted them. But he was no romantic bohemian, living on the margins of society: in his later years, he was still looking for patrons and was by this time very well known and financially comfortable…To the modern eye, less concerned with ideas of permanence and perfection, these (later) paintings represent a wonderful culmination of everything that had interested Turner throughout his life, and, just as in Beethoven’s late works, are exhilarating in their exceptional display of energy, creative vigor and inspiration. In Beethoven and Turner this is combined with the radical (for the time) forward pull of their personal artistic vision, which led to the creation of some of the most wondrous works in their entire output.”

Turner’s use of light, color and atmosphere, his swirling vortices of energy, were unmatched in the 19th century (arguably beyond) for their bowl-you-over radiance and intensity. Those sometimes lyrical, sometimes furious landscapes and seascapes presaged modern movements like Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

Go here for a review of the show from the New York Times, which accurately defines the artist as both Romantic and reformist.

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