Venetian Palace

Want to score $5 million? On March 18, 1990 the Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed by two unknown white males dressed in police uniforms and identifying themselves as Boston Police Officers. They stole several pieces worth more than $300 million. A $5 million reward is offered for the safe recovery of all stolen items in good condition.

That theft would leave well over two thousand items of art still in the Gardner Museum. The museum building is a Venetian palace that was opened in 1903. The building was erected in 1898 by Isabella Stewart Gardner, a New York socialite who moved to Boston after her marriage to John Gardner. Her great affection for the architecture and art of Italy inspired this spectacular building. I too am taken by the Venetian streetscapes that I have painted for this article.

Just as the palace in San Simeon, California, built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hurst, was composed of bits and pieces brought in from Europe, this Bostonian wonder also paid homage to European culture. Paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, as well as renaissance artists such as Pesellino, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael line the walls. Fueled by a bottomless supply of money, Mrs. Gardner, or Mrs. Jack as she was known, combed Europe seeking jewels for her Italianate casket.

During the late Victorian period and the Edwardian era, huge fortunes were established in America, and the expression for much of this new enormous wealth found its way to Europe. Although many Europeans decry the rape of the art market at that time, it was an opportunity for works of art to make their way to North America. Personally I am pleased that so many outstanding paintings arrived in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. These imported works have allowed many people who could not afford to travel an opportunity to experience great art. These collections also say much about the wealthy socialites who gathered, some lovingly, some maliciously, huge stashes of European cultural experience.

Visiting the Gardener Museum is like a fast step off the Grand Canal of Venice into a palace fit for royalty. This four-story confection is a mix of building parts, mostly Venetian, but including pieces from France, Spain and even China. The style of the building is Italian and is, I suppose, much like the homes of aristocrats all over the world, showcasing the treasures from foreign travels.

Beyond the art treasures in paint and marble, I am attracted to the central courtyard of this structure. Softened by palms and flowers, the centre floor is a mosaic from a Roman villa of the 11th century A.D. The head of Medusa is surrounded by delicate scrolling vines and birds representing the Four Seasons. Throughout the mansion, specialty rooms vie for the visitor’s attention. The Tapestry Room contains ten huge pieces from Brussels dated around 1550. That together with the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens transports the viewer to Belgium. The Chinese corridor runs parallel to the Spanish cloister and leads to the outside gardens which are open to the public in warm weather.

Studded throughout the museum are portraits of Mrs. Gardner. Although no beauty, her jewelry alone made a stunning starting point for an artist. Many of the portraitists from Sargent to Zorn to Whistler showed a woman who was sure of herself, her taste and her status. She could have appropriated the approach credited to James McNeill Whistler who, when he confronted a disagreeable man who claimed the same birthplace, Lowell, Massachusetts, said, “I shall be born when and where I choose.” He chose Baltimore or St. Petersburg, Russia, depending on his mood. Mrs. Jack was equally capricious and cocksure.