March 2015

Presence and Absence at the Gardner Museum

My son and I looking into the Garden Court at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, March 2015

My son and I looking into the Garden Court at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, March 2015

My family and I recently returned from a trip to Boston. One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Boston was to better understand and analyze the gallery space in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Long-time readers of this blog may recall my fascination with this American art collector; several years ago I wrote a post on how Mrs. Gardner (called “Mrs. Jack” by her friends) is a “female subject” that visitors encounter when they visit the space.

As I analyzed the museum space last week, I do feel like my observations about a “female subject” were justified. In fact, in a broader sense, I think that Isabella’s subjecthood and presence were very much part of the museum, despite her obvious absence (Isabella died in 1924). On one hand, the whole curation of the museum is an indication of Isabella’s presence, since she stipulated in her will that the objects in the museum should be kept just as she had arranged them. But objects throughout the museum, specifically the “palace” (the original museum), also hinted at the collector’s presence and absence.

Roman marble throne, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, n.d.

Roman marble throne, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, n.d.

Upon entering the Garden Court of the museum, I first became aware of Isabella’s simultaneous presence and absence through a printed guidebook that is placed in the garden to orient visitors. The guidebook specifically explains that Mrs. Gardner liked to sit in the Roman marble throne (shown above), among other representations of classical figures and goddesses. The guidebook then presents the question, “Could it be that [Mrs. Gardner] was setting a place for herself in the company of these powerful women?”1

For me, this brief inclusion in the guide helped to build up the idea of Isabella’s presence within the space, by drawing attention to the fact that she physically sat among her works of art. However, the guide simultaneously draws attention to the fact that the marble throne is now vacant, without a sitter, which is also made apparent by the guide’s discussion of Mrs. Gardner in the past tense. So, this marble throne gave off a presence and a void.

Detail of Titian Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Detail of Titian Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Mrs. Gardner’s presence and absence was also included in the museum in other ways as well. One of the most interesting inclusions for me was not through a painting or sculpture, but a piece of fabric. In the Titian Room, on the wall just underneath Titian’s Rape of Europa, Mrs. Gardner placed a piece of silk that was taken from a gown which was designed for her by Worth of Paris. A catalog for the museum explains that the color and tassel pattern complement the nearby end tables, but I think that this silk fabric suggests much more.2 In an indirect way, this silk fabric hints at an embodiment of Mrs. Gardner and her physical presence, since she herself wore this fabric as a ball gown. However, the idea of absence is implied in two ways: 1) the fabric is not part of a dress, and therefore not part of Mrs. Gardner’s body or presence and 2) the current fabric displayed is a reproduction, not the original that was once physically associated with Mrs. Gardner.

Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1888. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1888. Oil on canvas, 190 x 80 cm. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Probably the most obvious indication of Mrs. Gardner’s presence and absence throughout the museum are the portraits of her which are scattered throughout various rooms. Some examples are Mrs. Gardner in White in the Macknight Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice in the Short Gallery, as well as Study for Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice in the Blue Room. These portraits suggest the presence of the sitter through their visual reproduction of Mrs. Gardner’s likeness, but the portraits’ mere presence in the gallery space also suggests that they are substitutes for an actual person who is absent. Probably the most striking and poignant example of Mrs. Gardner’s presence is in the Gothic Room on the third floor of the museum, just as as the visitor is completing their survey of the museum as a whole. In this space is placed Sargent’s imposing Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1887-1888, shown above), which was painted when she was forty-seven years old.3 The painting is placed in the corner of the gallery (so it is the focal point of the room, regardless of which entrance is taken). After having subtle hints at both the presence and absence of the museum collector throughout the whole space, I felt like with this imposing, life-size portrait I was getting as close to the physical presence of Isabella as possible. I think a visitor could make no mistake as to who is the powerful benefactor who created and controlled their gallery experience, after being faced with this frontal, full-length portrait!

South Wall of the Dutch Room in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Room. The frame on the left held Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" (1633) and the frame on the right held Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" (1633)

South Wall of the Dutch Room in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Room. The frame on the left held Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” (1633) and the frame on the right held Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (1633)

On a side note, I’ll also just add that today the Gardner Museum embodies the idea of presence and absence in another way too: the empty frames for the stolen paintings in the Dutch Room are still on display, suggesting both a presence and unsettling void for these works.

Have you ever been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? Can you think of other instances in which her presence and absence are simultaneously emphasized to the visitor?

1 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Garden Court guidebook, unpublished. March 2015.

2 The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A Companion Guide and History, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 118. Frederick Worth designed this fabric around 1890.

3 Sargent also painted Isabella’s portrait in 1922 (titled “Mrs. Gardner in White”) it was painted three years after a stroke which paralyzed Isabella’s right side.


French Art at the Exposition Universelle of 1889

Café Volpini poster, cover and front page for Volpini exhibition, 1889. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Café Volpini poster, cover and front page for Volpini exhibition, 1889. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

This week my students and I are discussing a show that Gauguin and his friends mounted in June 1889 at the Café des Artes (later known as the Café Volpini, after its owner). Gauguin and his friends, who failed to exhibit at the official art show that was mounted by the committee of the Exposition Universelle, decided to mount their own show at a venue on the grounds of the fair.  This café was located in an ideal location: it was right outside the Italian galleries from the Décennale exhibition (a show which was devoted to art from the past decade), and also near the Pavilion de la Presse.1 As a result, journalists were sure to pass by the café and see the art on display. Although the Café Volpini show was a flop from an economic standpoint, the artists must have gotten some exposure by being on the fair grounds, given that an overwhelmingly impressive number of people – 28 million! – visited the Exposition Universelle that year; the fair ran from May 6th until November 6th.2

After class yesterday, a student asked me whether any avant-garde artists (like the Impressionists) exhibited their work at the Palais des Beaux-Arts show at the Exposition Universelle. I thought I would address that question here, in order to showcase why Gauguin and his friends were not invited to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle. For the most part, conservative, juste milieu, academic (including “pompier”), and/or Naturalist (i.e. late Realist) painters were highlighted in the official show. There were only few Impressionists who exhibited work (see below), but overall the show largely ignored this artistic movement. It seems logical to me that Post-Impressionists like Gauguin would not have been invited to exhibit in this show, given that a small dose of Impressionism was barely palatable enough for the exhibition committee.3

To prepare for this post, I have been combing through two catalogs from the 1889 exposition: Catalogue général officiel and Catalogue général officiel; Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889). French art was divided into two exhibitions, the “Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889)” and the “Exposition Décennale de l’art français (1878 to 1889).” There are over six hundred paintings that appeared on display in the Palais des Beaux-Arts (not to mention sculpture, drawings, and prints), and I am only highlighting a few artists and paintings which I find to be of interest. Since there were so many conservative artists that monopolized the show, I will discuss a few of these first, and then highlight some of the more avant-garde and recent artists which were accepted to the official show.

Meissonier is one artist who is particularly praised by the international jury. Perhaps this praise reveals a bit of a bias, since Meissonier was serving as president of the jury for the fine arts division of the Exposition Universelle that year! Meissonier, who was seventy-four at the time, had nineteen works of art on display at the show. These works of art included L’Auberge au Pont de Poissy (shown below), which was painted the same year as the exhibition itself.

Meissonier, "L'Auberge au Pont de Poissy," 1889

Meissonier, “L’Auberge au Pont de Poissy,” 1889

Other paintings included in the show were Bouguereau’s La Jeunesse de Bacchus (The Youth of Bacchus, 1884) and Jules Bastien-Lepange’s Joan of Arc (1879). One of the prize winners of the Palais des Beaux-Arts show was  Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, who exhibited The Harvest (1874).

Alfred Stevens, "A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities" from "Panorama of the Century," 1889

Alfred Stevens, “A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities” from “Panorama of the Century,” 1889

Alfred Stevens, who was born in Belgium but moved to Paris in the 1840s, was another artist who was highlighted at the Exposition Universelle. However, Stevens was not featured in the retrospective fine arts exhibition, but received the commission to create a panoramic painting specifically for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. This painting, Panorama du Siecle (Panorama of the Century), was painted with the help of Henri Gervex. It was an astonishing 120 meters long and 6 meters high (in other words, the size of a football field)! The immense panorama was installed at the Tuileries during the Exposition Universelle. Unsurprisingly, Stevens was unable to secure a permanent place to display the panorama after the fair ended, so he cut the painting into sections and distributed them to shareholders. One of these sections is now titled A Portrait of Parisian Celebrities (shown above, more information HERE). A few other segments of the panorama can be seen HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Édouard Manet, "Boating," 1874. 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 in. (97.2 x 130.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Édouard Manet, “Boating,” 1874. 38 1/4 x 51 1/4 in. (97.2 x 130.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia. Exhibited as part of the “Exposition centennale de l’art français (1789-1889)” from May-November 1889.

Artists with more of a notorious reputation were invited to show their work, too, thanks to the influence of the critic Roger Marx.4 For example, Courbet had twelve paintings on display at the Centennial Exhibition, and Manet had fourteen paintings in that show. In addition to Boating (shown above), Manet also exhibited The Spanish Singer (an earlier work of art that I highlighted in a recent post). Manet first received critical success for The Spanish Singer, so it makes sense to me that this painting by Manet would be included in the centennial show. Unsurprisingly, his infamous Olympia painting was also shown. I think the inclusion of this painting really shows how accepting the French public had become of Realism by 1889, considering that this painting caused a scandal when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1865.

A few Impressionist paintings were on display as well. Monet had three paintings on display in the Centennial Exposition, listed as Les Tuileries, Vetheuil, and L’église de Vernon (read about the series for this latter painting HERE). Pissaro also had a work of art on display, Soleil d’hiver. Degas was invited to exhibit, but he declined the invitation.(Given the ambiguity of these titles in the catalog and the fact that Impressionists would often paint the same subject more than once, I haven’t been able to concretely pinpoint which specific paintings were exhibited. If anyone knows, please share!)

Gustave Moreau, "Jacob and the Angel," 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Gustave Moreau, “Jacob and the Angel,” 1878. Image courtesy Wikipedia

I think that Gauguin and his colleagues would have been most interested having their show compete with the art that was displayed in the “Exposition Décennale de l’art français (1878 to 1889),” since this art would have been the most recent. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Italian galleries for the overall décennale exhibition were located near the Café des Artes (Café Volpini).

I haven’t found a catalog for the décannale show specifically – please share if you know where I can find one in print or digital format! I do know, though, that Moreau’s Jacob and the Angel (1874-1878) was part of this official show. I find this subject matter striking, given the context of Gauguin and the ongoing Cafe Volpini show, because of Gauguin’s interest in this biblical subject. Although Gauguin’s famous painting Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) was not included in the 1889 Café Volpini show, Gauguin had painted this work of art just a year previously. Perhaps he noticed Moreau’s painting on display and considered how the painting was different from his own interpretation of the subject matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if this painting prompted Gauguin to brood over the fact that his own painting was not on display!

Are there particular works of art from the 1889 Beaux-arts exhibition or Café Volpini show that stand out in your mind?

 1 Heather Lemonedes, “Paul Gauguin’s High Yellow Note: The ‘Volpini Suite,'”, p. 29. Available online HERE.

2 Gill Perry, “Exhibiting ‘les Indépendents’: Gauguin and the Café Volpini Show,” in The Challenge of the Avant-Garde by Paul Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 180.

3 The unequal representation of the French artistic scene caught the attention of at least one writer who covered the 1889 exhibition: “Offrons-nous aujord’hui à un artiste quelque chose que ressemble à cette collaboration silencieuse et efficace? Analysez les éléments dont se compose un public d’exposition, écoutez les jugements contradictoires et les théories discordantes des critiques; voyez le désarroi de l’esthétique contemporaine et toutes les nuances d’opinions, de gouts et d’idéals, depuis M. Bougereau jusqu’à M. Degas, depuis M. Bonnat jusqu’à M. Manet, depuis M. Paul Flandrin jusqu’à M. Claude Monet, depuis M. Meissonier jusqu’à M. Raffaëlli. Chacun a son public, ses défenseurs ou ses contradicteurs, souvent également acharnés.” See Librairie Illustrée, L’Exposition de Paris 1889 p. 242. Available online HERE.

4 Lemonedes., p. 28. Available online HERE.

5 Degas refused to participate in group exhibitions after 1886, and the World Fair of 1889 was no exception. See Lemonedes, p. 28. See also Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edgar Degas (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988) p. 363. Available online HERE.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.