That’s how I felt visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when visiting Boston a few weeks ago.
I went to see a rare collection of eight Titian paintings gathered from around the world. But the Venetian palace that Ms. Gardner built to display her artwork was as fascinating to explore as the Titian masterpieces. It was opened to the public in 1903, a labyrinth of magnificently appointed rooms rising four stories tall and built around a lush, enclosed, garden courtyard.
I was a little piqued at first because none of the painting on display included the names of the artists or paintings, or any information about them, as you usually find in museums. So you were flying blind, guessing whose painting is this, and where did that one come from. Is that amazing Spanish dancer a John Singer Sergeant? It is. And that lovely terrace by Matisse? Right again. But I missed the Rembrandt self-portrait and the Botticelli I got wrong. Some of my favorites turned out to be from artists I was unfamiliar with. Fortunately you can explore her art collection and her rooms on the website.
Still, it was a feast for the eye, not only the paintings but the elaborate furnishings and wall tapestries and carpets. Even murals on ceilings.
It created aa lush and exotic atmosphere in which to experience the artwork. And the way one room wound around another and led to little alcoves and long hallways, pretty soon you felt as disoriented in space as you were in time, and everywhere your gaze fell was some extraordinary painting or sculpture to arrest your attention.
The final room I viewed was where the Titians were collected and I spent quite a bit of time just allowing myself to absorb them. The title of the Collection is: Women, Myth, and Power. I may have more to say about these works later, but for now, here is what the Museum has to say:
“Between 1551 and 1562, Titian created a series of monumental paintings for King Philip II of Spain. Celebrated as landmarks of western painting, the six poesie — or painted poetries — envision epic stories from classical Antiquity. Titian reimagined these familiar tales and used his modern style of painting to shape the future of western art. For the first time in over four centuries, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s fully restored Rape of Europa is reunited with its five illustrious companions in the exhibition’s finale and its only American venue on an international tour including to the National Gallery, London and the Museo del Prado, Madrid. This exhibition explores each painting’s story, its drama, raw emotion, and complex consequences illustrated in each painting, reconsidering what the poesie meant in their own time and how they resonate now. Newly commissioned responses by contemporary artists and scholars engage with questions of gender, power, and sexual violence as relevant today as they were in the Renaissance.”
Adding to the mystery and allure of Ms. Gardner’s museum is the famous art heist that took place in 1990. Thirteen pieces worth $500 million were cut out of their frames by two men posing as police officers. None of the work has been recovered, including Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), his only only known seascape. The empty frames are still on display.
If you love art and are in Boston, don’t miss this treasure. It’s a feast for the senses.