Wednesday, July 24, 2019

417. Charles Ricketts in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Last week's blog included a portrait of the Earl of Arundel by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, and this week another portrait of the Collector Earl illustrates a blog about Ricketts in Boston.
Peter Paul Rubens, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (c. 1629-1630)
[Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston]
[Wikimedia Commons]
I visited the area (Amherst and Boston) because of the book-historical congress SHARP and afterwards, waiting for my flight, I had time to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston which is conveniently close to that other great museum, The Museum of Fine Arts. (My colleague and friend Ruth Rogers of Wellesley College advised me to visit the Gardner collection because of the Italianate-style villa that houses it.) Boston experienced the usual hot summer weather, and the air-conditioned museums were crowded. 

The intimacy of Gardner's museum did suffer from the hustle and bustle - there were queues of people waiting in front of some special and not very large rooms: you had to make an effort to be able to stand face to face with a painting by Henri Matisse or the mysterious 'Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach' (c.1872-1878) by James McNeill Whistler.

View of the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
19 July 2019 [Photo: author]
The much larger halls with windows overlooking the (now covered) courtyard were less crowded, if only because most tourists were mainly concerned with a selfie or a family portrait in front of the large open windows. In one of these rooms there was a portrait of the Earl of Arundel by Rubens, made around 1630. 

Last week's blog was about Junius's book on painters and painting commissioned by this Earl, an edition of which Ricketts and Shannon gave a copy (their own copy) to Robert Ross as a gift. That happened in 1911. Sixteen years later, in the Fall of 1927, Ricketts made a trip to Canada and America and visited the collection of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), who had died a few years earlier.

Anders Zorn, 'Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice' (1894)
[Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston]
[Wikimedia Commons]
Ricketts spent a week in Boston before setting sail on the Laconia for England, and let several friends know that he had enjoyed New York and Boston. The poet Bottomley received a letter that Ricketts wrote on 8 December, after returning to London.

View of the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
19 July 2019 [Photo: author]
The famous Gardner Collection, now housed in a Venetian palace made out of the material of two genuine Venetian houses, is delightful; authentic pictures by Giorgione, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Giotto, Titian, Pesellino, Fra Angelico are placed on old brocades. The courtyard was a mass of giant white chrysanthemums, white cinerarias, white cyclamens, one Roman sarcophagus filled with crimson cyclamens, and a lovely pink camelia tree in a Chinese pot; there are small fountains in niches with running water and plants, and while looking at Botticelli's "Rape of Lucrece" I heard dim echoes of Mendelssohn. I moved towards a vast room hung with superb tapestries, and two of the attendants at a piano sang Rubinstein's "Azra," Rimsky's "Rose and the Nightingale" (in French), one of the "Dichter liebe" songs in German, and then played two of Chopin's immortal Preludes and a piece by Rachmaninov. Imagine two British policemen doing this in the Wallace Collection! I was told afterwards that these attendants, who all seemed intelligent and even good-looking, are Harvard students, well paid for this work done in extra hours, and that thousands a year are spent on their salaries, and on the relays of flowers in the Cortile.
(Self-Portrait, 1939, pp. 391-392)

It typifies Ricketts that he spends more superlatives on the plants and flowers and on the music than on the works of art. In the meantime, the guards are no longer students of music and standing in front of Botticelli's painting you don't hear vague musical sounds anymore, but the constant noise of the air conditioning and the whispering voices of tourists trying to guess what happened to that poor Lucrecia and why a rape looks like a murder.

View of the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
19 July 2019 [Photo: author
Gardner did a lot of business with the art historian, art dealer and art paean Bernard Berenson (the museum sells the complete correspondence of the two) and before Ricketts visited the museum he was told about it by the English dealer Colin Agnew:

Agnew revealed stories about Berenson's crooked dealings with Mrs Isabella Gardner that the shocked Ricketts found 'impossible', but he had heard similar stories before and Agnew swore that 'enough is known in the trade to ruin B.B.' 
(J.G. Paul Delaney, Charles Ricketts. A Biography, 1990, pp. 360-361).

Attribution of paintings to famous medieval painters was Berenson's specialty, and he was also a master at re-attributing works when his first attempt proved historically incorrect.

During his tour of the museum, Ricketts will also have seen the portrait of the Earl of Arundel. Nowadays it hangs in a room dedicated to Dutch art, including Flanders. There are paintings by Rembrandt (less than in the past because of an illustrious burglary) and by Rubens.

Peter Paul Rubens, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (c. 1629-1630)
[Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston]
[Photos: author]
Ricketts wrote to Shannon that Giorgione's painting 'Christ Carrying the Cross' moved him to the bone:

I trembled before Giorgione's Christ, unmistakably by him.
(J.G. Paul Delaney, 'Charles Ricketts and the National Gallery of Canada', 1991, p. 367)

Ricketts' attributions don't always hold up either. Already in 1896, when Gardner bought the painting, the name of the maker was contested, - all the more reason for Ricketts's absolute certainty - but today it is appreciated as a work by a pupil of Bellini, probably Vincenzo Catena (c 1470-1531). 

Fortunately, the climatic conditions have also improved. During his visit, Ricketts noticed that the lighting was poor and that the paintings were often in poor condition.

Statue in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
[Photo: author]
Despite the many visitors, the building with its quirky rooms still impresses, the paintings no less than the plants and the decorations including peculiar statues such as a lion attacking a man. Many visitors use the lion to rest on.