Hello, I’m Casey Riley; as Consulting Curator, I work with Isabella Stewart Gardner’s personal archives. And this room is full of objects that reveal her personal relationships. Many of the paintings on the walls were created by her closest friends. She installed these alongside decorative arts, furniture, and textiles, as well as letters and photographs from her friends. Throughout the museum, she delighted in connecting her everyday life with extraordinary objects.
Now, turn towards the wall with two windows. Between the windows, there’s a wall jutting out. Just in front of it, there’s a metal lantern hanging from the ceiling. It’s in the shape of a boat. Let’s meet there; pause your device if you need time to maneuver your way over.
I wanted to point out something just under that boat lantern. Do you see the little round portrait, in the ornately carved frame? It’s Isabella! I thought you’d like to meet her face-to-face. Her friend Anders Zorn drew this in Venice–see how her blue eyes sparkle! I think it captures her legendary charisma. Now, facing Isabella’s portrait, move just slightly to the left, just around the half-wall. There’s a case there, under the large painting. We have to keep it covered because Isabella’s mementos inside are sensitive to light. She arranged her cases very carefully: curating her life alongside her collection of art. Lift the cover, and you’ll see a photograph of a young man in profile, with long, curling hair. He’s Bernard Berenson, one of Isabella’s art advisors. She supported Berenson’s education when he was quite young, about the age pictured here; he later became a close friend. Isabella had a number of expert advisors—critics, art historians, and dealers—who helped her to amass her collection.
Now, look at the photo of the woman in this case, in the right corner. Her hair is neatly coiffed, and she looks determined. She’s the social reformer and champion of women’s rights, Julia Ward Howe. We can’t always make specific connections between what Isabella put in a given case and a nearby work of art. But I do see a connection here! With that big painting on the wall just above it! It shows us newly emancipated, unchaperoned women, on public transportation in Paris.
Now, replace the cover if others aren’t looking in the case, and I’ll point out one more thing in this room. From this painting, turn to your right and look across the gallery. You’ll see a low bookcase near the doorway. That bookcase is filled with volumes by authors Isabella knew personally. You’ll see bookcases throughout the museum. Collecting rare books and manuscripts was Isabella’s ‘gateway’ to collecting art.
In addition to works by friends, Isabella filled the Blue Room with contemporary art of her own time. She was a keen supporter of living artists—and musicians. You can find more examples of this in the room next to this one, called the Yellow Room.