A Collector Displays her Gems
by Franklin W. Liu
Without acknowledgment of tradition, art is like a sightless adult; without innovation, that adult is comatose. Thus, only with an artist’s primed imagination may truth surge from the yoke of tradition to find new meaning and validation in an ever-changing world.”
Walking that thin line some 500 years ago was a group of Northern European, Italian, and Spanish artists who are now deemed Old Masters, spanning from the Early Renaissance to High Renaissance Era. What an astounding cultural rebirth it was, inducing new thinking in art, literature, and architecture, circa 1480 to 1527.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway is currently presenting 25 such Old Masters’ works from the Museum’s permanent collection in “Off the Wall: Gardner and Her Masterpieces.” This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition includes works by Renaissance artists like Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael, and Michelangelo Buonarroti, along with pieces by other notable Baroque artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt. From a later date, we are treated to Swedish painter Anders Zorn’s “Expressionist” oil portrait of Gardner, who was not only a lifelong passionate art collector but also a cultural aggregator of private letters, photos and memorabilia. All contribute to a rarely seen side of prominent people in her social circle.
The sensitive, expertly articulated lighting in the museum’s Hostetter Gallery brings out surprising, subtle but rich details in these esteemed, historical artworks that previously may have been missed by viewers. Observers will stand literally at arm’s length from these invaluable artworks, and all at once, realize these famous artists also stood at the exact same distance while working on these very canvases; it’s akin to traveling back in time to peer over their shoulders while they worked. What an privilege that is for this awestruck reviewer.
Upon entering the Hostetter Gallery, one comes face to face with Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait,” painted in 1629. This oil painting was among the very first artworks acquired by Gardner, which sparked her devotion to collecting and preserving fine art for future generations.