- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2003

BOSTON.—From the outside, it looks like another gray building along one of the city's gray boulevards.
But you're scarcely out of the cab and inside before you're gazing at the interior garden flowering and green plants, Greek and Roman statuary, fountains and ivy . It takes your breath away, then restores it. You're looking out at the central courtyard that all three stories have been built to enclose. The garden strikes the eye differently from every floor and angle, returning you to color and light and life, calm and uplift. Welcome to Isabella Stewart Gardner's house.
It's called a museum now, but you feel like presenting your calling card as if you were dropping by a private home a century ago. Our hostesses' stamp is everywhere you look. Mrs. Gardner's was is a singular vision. And a reflection of a singular woman: her energy, wealth, generosity and, not least, attention to detail. She determined where every picture would hang and every tapestry. She chose the color of the tiles and the size of the doors. She put it all in place just so, and, by the terms of her will, so it remains.
Here you feel like a guest rather than museumgoer the guest of a lady with definite views, for which you're profoundly grateful.
What other collector would have gathered John Singer Sargent's "El Jaleo" and his stunning pictures of Mrs. Gardner herself under one, three-story roof above a courtyard out of 15th century Venice?
As in a home, the pictures that have acquired fame over the years are scattered here and there without fanfare; only Sargent's "El Jaleo" gets star treatment, and it would have that wherever it was.
The poinsettias have been put out this time of year I wonder if Mrs. Gardner would approve of anything so expected. Instead, one thinks of the reaction of the hundreds of guests the night the merry widow Gardner opened her mysterious new house on the Fenway.
At 62, she had spent the four years since her husband's death searching Europe for the arches and pillars, staircases and furnishings, whole walls and rose windows, that would make up her dream palace.
Isabella Stewart Gardner had all this assembled under her personal supervision behind the outwardly unexceptional walls. Then it was time to unveil it on New Year's Night, 1903. The guests were ushered in and guided upstairs to the high-ceilinged music room for a concert of Bach, Mozart and Schumann by a 50-piece ensemble from the Boston Symphony under the direction of Wilhelm Gericke. (If there was anything Mrs. Gardner loved better than art, it was music.)
Then the great doors overlooking the courtyard were flung open and there below, illuminated by lanterns hung from the balconies and sparkling in the candlelight below, was the courtyard garden with its plenitude of flowers and murmuring fountains. It must have astounded then as it astounds now.
The sight even got an exclamation point in the description penned later by the always reserved Henry James, who for once overcame his reservations. He was among the guests that night, although Mrs. Gardner much preferred the company of starving artists and unrecognized talents.
The story is that her collection, or at least the parts of it the current crop of critics think well of, was really the work of the young art critic she patronized the much debated Bernard Berenson. But a look at their correspondence indicates she was teaching him at least as much as he thought he was teaching her and that she was not always pleased with her pupil and agent.
I used to know a lady like Mrs. Gardner, in spirit though not worldly resources. Her name was Julia Raley and she lived not in Boston but Pine Bluff, Ark., and though I knew her only in her last, dwindling years, she never lost her brightness. Her house with its great lawn and stately pillars, a picture of Southern gentility fading fast, is only a ruin and memory now; even then it was falling in on her. Miss Julia would jolly you one minute, chide you the next, but always have your full attention. She and Mrs. Gardner would have understood one another.
Memories of great ladies merge. But it is time to go. The unreal world waits. Thank you, Mrs. Gardner, we had a nice time. Other guests keep arriving as we leave to enjoy the gifts her keen eye and unsparing will have left succeeding generations. From somewhere, maybe the garden, you can almost hear her response. It is the motto she chose for the seal she designed, like everything else, for her museum: C'est mon plaisir. My pleasure.


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