I wish I could remember the words I had to describe this museum when I visited it last Sunday. Of course, I’m not the first person to write about it.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—basically a work of art in itself—houses hundreds of paintings and thousands of objects ranging from Italian to Spanish, Chinese to French, medieval to Moorish. But instead of mounting them on stark walls of white, informational placards by their sides, Mrs. Gardner’s philosophy was that of total immersion in what art actually is, not about where it came from, nor about what historical or artistic category it belongs to. Rather, her mission was to spark visitors’ curiosity—to give them the courage to see art as living and breathing, not frozen in time. In keeping with that mission, art is placed throughout the museum’s rooms as though an enigmatic but familiar friend were still living there. Every bookshelf, cabinet, letter, textile, sculpture, dining table, desk, and tapestry is preserved with immaculate precision—the colors so nuanced, granulated, and fresh—that I felt like I’d entered a nineteenth century palace. One chair in particular (I will never forget this chair) moved me to tears. I had no idea art could be so beautiful. Of course, if a single chair could have that effect on me when cast in this creative light, I can’t even fathom what the museum’s missing Rembrandts or Vermeers—lost during the famous 1990 heist just 16 days after I was born—could do.
The experience of being in the Gardner Museum was the first time I’d ever felt like I truly understood what visual art is for. I know that sounds strange—of course art is art; it’s beautiful. We look at it for the same reasons we listen to a piece of music or feast on a delicious meal. Before last Sunday, though, rarely would a work of visual art stay with me for too long after I’d seen it. Yes, I was content exploring galleries and cultivating personal tastes. But the effect was never as personal as it was on Sunday. When you enter the Gardner Museum, you step into a dynamic story. You see Isabella’s private Chinese room, once shut off to the public, where she went to be alone. You see hundreds of old books read by actual people and portraits painted by John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Gardner’s close friend. You walk into a ballroom filled with painstakingly crafted tapestries and lovely grand piano, only to turn to the right and see a balcony where you can peer into the courtyard below. You feel as though every object is to be studied, deciphered, seen from every angle and approached with attention to every detail. And at the same time, the point is to see art—even something as domestic as a chair—through one’s own eyes, and to apply what you know of life to it. It was like I’d been presented with a colorized version of an old black-and-white photograph; suddenly, I understood that art is real. That the most ordinary things in our lives are still-life frames. That people are portraits, and they blink or smile or sneeze or stare while the artist is working. That a painting interacts with people, that we experience it as a wordless story engaging with the patterns of our own lives, that it looks upon our items and our items become the painting, that life is a series of frames. That everything—including this musuem—is dictated by choices, and by context. And that context yields freedom.
At once, you see the immediacy of a chair and the timelessness of a pose. You think, “this is what it’s like to be a member of the human race.” Being in this museum, then, presented me with a challenge: I wanted to carry that feeling with me. I wanted to lend and receive ideas in my own life with the same intensity, the same authenticity. It’s not every day that I’ll experience something like a cool museum, but going there made me realize some pretty exciting things about life and how we understand culture. All of the people depicted in the works Mrs. Gardner amassed (including Mrs. Gardner herself) contributed something, and they are represented now by their relationship to us. Their lives are still frames that make our own lenses wider.