Open Book Publishers logo Open Access logo
  • button
  • button
  • button
GO TO...
book cover

12. Shedding Light on the History of Lighting at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Holly Salmon

© 2019 Holly Salmon, CC BY 4.0

Fig. 12.1 The Gothic Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. All rights reserved.

In 1897, the great arts patron Isabella Stewart Gardner wrote to art historian Bernard Berenson about her plans for lighting the prized Titian painting, Europa (1560–62), which Berenson had recently helped her to acquire for her Boston, Massachusetts home.1 Her letter reads, ‘The electrician has come to arrange for Europa’s adorers, when the sun doesn’t shine. You have no idea how difficult it is to arrange light satisfactorily.’2 Six years later, when she opened her museum, Gardner abandoned attempts to illuminate her collection with electricity and chose instead to use only natural and flame-sourced light. Like many similar institutions, the progressive history of lighting from that moment until today is complex and ever changing. From bamboo shades to fibre-optic lighting, the Museum has continued to make adjustments to gallery lighting in a quest to find the ever-elusive ‘perfect’ solution.

Born in 1840, Isabella Stewart married John (Jack) Lowell Gardner in 1860, and three years later they had a son. At just two years old, their son, Jackie, died of pneumonia, sending Isabella Gardner into a deep depression. Doctors advised the couple to travel in order to lift their spirits, resulting in the first of many trips abroad. Their early adventures took them to Europe and then later the Middle East, Asia and through the Americas. Venice quickly became Gardner’s favoured venue for vacation abroad and she returned there frequently to stay at the Palazzo Barbaro in the San Marco district.3 It was on these travels that the Gardners became collectors. Their stately home began to fill with treasured paintings by Rembrandt, Botticelli, Vermeer and Van Dyke, along with historic furniture, decorative arts and sculpture.

In these early years, when Gardner wrote to Berenson about the challenge of lighting Europa, she had picture-lights installed over her most-prized paintings, as evidenced in historic photographs of her home. For ambient lighting, she relied on modern lamps and elaborate chandeliers. While there is no further documentation on the use of lighting in the Gardner’s Beacon Street home, it is clear that she took a distinctly different approach to lighting when she moved on to build a museum.

In choosing a location to house their collection after Jack died in 1898, Isabella Gardner selected a site in Boston that was, at the time, on the outer edges of the city. Her intention was to have no other buildings casting a shadow on her creation. Heavily influenced by her frequent visits to Venice, the building was designed to look like a fifteenth century palazzo, particularly the interior. Three floors of galleries surround a glass roofed central courtyard with the fourth floor reserved for her living quarters (now offices).4

Gardner wrote very little about her installations and nothing about the gallery lighting. Interpretation of letters, articles and photographs is required to understand her intentions. Early images were taken by the father and son photographers, Thomas and Arthur Marr, from 1902 to 1926. Known for photographing interiors, Thomas Marr was likely hired by Gardner for his sensitivity to light and atmosphere. The museum administration continued to work with the Marrs even after Gardner’s death. Their images provide the most comprehensive documentation of her museum’s original appearance.5

These images show that she did have electric lighting in some smaller rooms used as waiting rooms or offices, and likely in her fourth floor apartment. However, she relied mostly on natural light from the exterior and courtyard windows in her galleries. She deliberately installed many of her works adjacent to those windows to capitalize on the natural light. For instance the lovely Fra Angelico, Death and Assumption of the Virgin (1430–34)6 is positioned in a far corner, turned away from the entrance to the gallery, in order to be positioned perpendicularly to the window. The effect of sunlight dancing off of the gilding and deep lapis lazuli was more important to Gardner than placing this valuable piece in some prominent location.

After several years of construction and art installation, Gardner opened her museum with an extravagant New Year’s Eve gala in 1903. Assuming that all of the candle-based fixtures found in the museum’s galleries were lit, over 550 of them would have glowed that night along with paper lanterns hung throughout the courtyard. Unfortunately, there are no photos of the opening; however, Gardner often entertained in her galleries in the evenings and the effect of viewing the museum under candlelight was documented in letters she received from her guests. In a letter comparable to many others written about such an event, Sidney Norton Deane, a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, wrote, ‘I do not know how conditions could have been combined with more beautiful effect — weather, moonlight, flowers, lights, and voices. It was like some magical country, out of the Odyssey.’7

Like Deane, in his reference to Homer’s ancient Greek poem, other guests wrote that a visit to Gardner’s palace transported them to another time. For German art historian Paul Clemen, who wrote of such an evening, it was the Renaissance era:

How solemn seemed the Dutch Room8 with these few stiff candles and the courtyard in the dark scarlet of the paper lanterns. I imagine how beautiful the whole palace must be, when all is clear in him and wonderful dressed people move through the rooms like in the days of Giorgione.

The candle light was ghostly beautiful — your precious green jewellery was shining like serpent-eyes and the clear green bracelet on your arm looked like a small vivid Indian Kobra — but still more beautiful all the Rembrandts, Rubens, Holbeins would shine in full light.9

Clemen’s final remark, however, suggests some disappointment at not being able to see the paintings in daylight. A similar account remarking on both the darkness and beauty found at one of Gardner’s events was given by businessman Larz Anderson:

Mrs. Jack Gardner’s party at Fenway Court was like fairyland — rather a dim fairyland, to be sure, for the beautiful rooms of the great house were lighted only by candles and not many at that — and many were left unlighted in their sockets (which was an artistic touch), and the gallery, where two of her choicest pictures are, was so dim that one had to scratch matches to look at the Botticelli and the Della Robbia.10

While Gardner probably enjoyed offering her guests both a sense of mystery and a desire to see more, the many scholars and art historians she kept in her circle were likely frustrated at not being able to properly study the fine works in her collection.

A charming letter from socialite Sissie Mortimer, extolling the drama of seeing the museum at night, seems to chide such disappointment:

I am so happy to have seen your most beautiful palace for the first time by candle light — no daylight could ever have lent it half the charm, which the moon & the candle light did and the sense of mystery, of half revealment, added a great deal to the enchantment of the scene. I felt sorry for a few misguided fools, who were grieving, because they could not see each picture & each object more distinctly & I inwardly commented upon their narrow vision.

Is seeing the only thing in life, is feeling nothing? Sometimes I think feeling is so much more than seeing, & thank God, I can feel the beauty of my surroundings & felt them so intensely two nights ago. To me there was no flaw, there was no false note, all was beautiful, sympathetic & harmonious & I thought I had found my way once more into my beloved Italy.11

One can imagine that Gardner delighted in receiving this letter as she certainly had been influenced by the architecture of Italy and Venice and, just as importantly, the quality of light she would have experienced in her stays at the Palazzo Barbaro.

The final gallery that visitors reach when making the natural progression through the museum is the Gothic Room,12 which holds a once-scandalous portrait of Gardner by John Singer Sargent. This gallery was perhaps one of the more mysterious spaces she created because the room, with a giant, bright rose window and contrasting darkly clad walls, was kept off view from most visitors during her lifetime. However, it was also a space that Sargent, her friend, was known to enjoy as a studio. This can be seen in his portrait of Mrs. Fiske Warren and her Daughter (1903).13 In the painting, Sargent captures the play of light off of his subject’s dresses and the glints of gold from the Gothic Room sculptures behind them. Interestingly, a photograph depicting Sargent in the process of painting the Warrens shows that he chose to cover the large rose window with a dark cloth, likely to prevent backlighting while he painted.14

Just as historic images of her galleries provide a sense of how Gardner curated light, several portraits of her utilize dramatic light and may give some insight into how she wanted to be perceived. Baron Adolf de Meyer, a society and fashion photographer, portrayed her enveloped in a soft, ethereal light, evoking foggy mystery such as she created for her evening events. Anders Zorn, by contrast, captured her passion and joy in his portrait Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894) by highlighting the brightness of her dress and face as she returns from enjoying the view on a Palazzo Barbaro balcony. In both examples, the use of light to convey emotion is highly prevalent and appropriate to what is known of Gardner’s character.15

Gardner suffered the first in a series of strokes in 1919 and passed away in 1924. Since then, the museum administration has maintained a beloved and challenging stipulation from her last will and testament. It states that the arrangement of objects in her museum must remain unchanged and the collection held in trust, ‘as a Museum for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.’16 Though because Gardner displayed light sensitive works, such as textiles and works of art on paper, immediately adjacent to less sensitive paintings and sculpture, maintaining this permanently installed collection is a daunting task.

During her lifetime, the museum was only open for limited times. When she was not showcasing her collection, the windows would be shaded and the courtyard roof was painted over in the summer. In 1925, the year after Gardner’s death, the museum began to open for regular public hours. The administration recognized that this would expose the collection to more harmful light. As Morris Carter’s Director’s Report from that year explained, ‘During the spring […] the exterior windows of the building were screened and also, at the suggestion of the President, fitted with bamboo curtains which soften and improve the light and reduce heat.’17

Not long after, in order to balance out the shaded windows, electric lighting was introduced into the galleries. This process began with electrifying the candle fixtures, which produced mixed results and mixed reception. Board President Harold Jefferson Coolidge commented:

When it comes to lighting — personally I regret the substitution of electricity for candles wherever it can be avoided, and without knowing how the rest of you feel, I for one think it would be a great mistake to try to light the pictures by any artificial light. For evening receptions the courtyard and the outdoor garden can, and are made, very beautiful by systems of modern illumination, but I very much hope that where the pictures hang we shall use candles alone and as many of them as are needed.18

It seems that Coolidge was out-voted as electric lighting was continually added to the galleries. And, the reception from the museum’s board continued to be varied. In 1937, in a letter from the assistant director to Carter regarding comments from a trustee:

The only other matter discussed was the new lighting. On this subject Mr. Pope had a good deal to say, and he was definitely the leader. The lights in the Dutch Room he admitted were all right and an improvement as long as the candles were on at the same time so that the walls were more evenly lighted. The lights in the Tapestry Room he felt very differently about, claiming that they completely changed the room. Apparently Mrs. Gardner had consulted him when she was arranging the room and they had placed everything with an eye to light and shadow. Their arrangement, which he thought nearly perfect, was completely spoiled by the lights.19

Gardner’s selected trustees were obviously uncomfortable with the introduction of electric lighting but there also seemed to be no going back. Through the years, other attempts at adding light were introduced through modification of existing fixtures or the addition of new ones. Tinted window films, curtains and shades were also added to the windows in order to further control potentially harmful sunlight.

However, a comprehensive approach to managing light in the museum was never utilized until the museum embarked on a capital project to address this in 2004. The Museum designated a team made up of an independent lighting consultant and members of the operations, conservation and curatorial staffs to design and execute the project. Their aim was to balance atmosphere, such as the characteristic appearance of the museum at night; Gardner’s intent for the use of light; conservation concerns and the visitor experience. The $1.65 million project took place over eight years completing with the opening of the museum’s Renzo Piano wing in 2012.

Meeting all of the specified targets was a seemingly impossible task. The challenges faced during the project included finding neutral solutions for individually unique galleries, installation of all new wiring and fixtures while the museum remained open to the public, and satisfying the competing nature of the goals. The solutions in each gallery varied from simple to complex, in some cases adding only one fixture to a gallery, in others complete gallery de-installation for new wiring, installation of multiple fixtures and ceiling repair. Recognizing that, in the future, preferences for lighting and standards for energy efficiency will change, many choices were made with reversibility in mind. As with other preservation projects, the team also learned that sometimes the best solution is simply to maintain what already exists.

Despite these efforts, one of the most common complaints from Gardner visitors remains that there is not enough light to properly view the art. One visitor wrote:

Last week I visited the ISGM for the first time. There were many exhibits that are impossible to appreciate because of the low light intensity. I know you are worried about light damaging the artifacts but I can assure you that your extreme measures are totally ridiculous. I have heard you might be constrained by the will of Mrs. Gardner, which she wrote almost 100 years ago. However, there must be a way of bringing the ISGM into the 21st century. I am sure you have scientific advisers who know what I am saying is true. Is there no way that recent technological developments that were undreamed of in the 1920s can be embraced? I was encouraged to write to you by a story this morning reporting that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is now illuminated brilliantly by 7000 LEDs. What is deemed suitable for the works of Michelangelo should be considered by the ISGM.20

While the Sistine Ceiling frescos are not as susceptible to damage from light as some of the Gardner collection, this visitor has a valid point regarding the many modern advances in lighting. The Gardner Museum staff continues to evaluate and adjust the lighting systems as both technologies and overall perceptions change. To this end, they are installing a new LED system as a part of the 2016–17 project to restore the museum’s Raphael Room.21

This evaluation process also includes looking at the problem holistically and considering other options for protecting the collection. One solution the museum has used to prevent continual exposure to light is to put reproductions in place for the most-sensitive works. The conservation and curatorial staff focuses on using high quality reproductions and insures that the originals are available for scholarly study or rotation on-view. One such example is an elaborate, flame-stitched embroidery installed behind the fresco of Hercules by Piero Della Francesca (ca.1470).22 The reproduction was hand-stitched by the Textiles conservation staff and volunteers over the course of a year.

In another modern-day perspective, Boston Globe reporter Sebastian Smee wrote:

Gardner’s Museum — layered, cloistered, holding darkness and light in dynamic counterpoise — was designed as an antidote to the waves of modernity washing over American cities. It was to be a sanctuary, a retreat, a place of aesthetic elevation and spiritual consolation.

Anyone who has been to the Gardner knows that Fenway Court, as she dubbed it, is also the opposite of most modern art museums, where an ideal of maximum illumination and transparency holds sway. Gardner’s museum, by contrast is opaque from the outside, and as often as not, dismayingly dark inside […]

But of course, all this ‘confusion’ is a part not just of the ‘charm’ of the place, but also of Gardner’s special intention for it. She wanted to induce a certain susceptibility to the viewer… she wanted to charge her museum with the kind of mystery and poetry that are, in most cases, conspicuous by their absence from most modern museums. Darkness and shadows were part of her arsenal.23

While he is referring to the Gardner Museum of the early twentieth-century, the idea of thinking about the museum today as ‘an antidote to the waves of modernity’ is one that is embraced in the museum’s mission statement, ‘to engage local and global audiences in a sanctuary of beauty and the arts where deeply personal and communal adventures unfold.’24

Additionally, the museum continues to support contemporary artists and scholars who, like John Singer Sargent, find beauty and inspiration in the quality of light at the Gardner. As the lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, a lecturer at the museum, put it:

You go into a room and it is about how the room feels. It isn’t about looking at the objects. Sometimes it’s very difficult to see the objects, the specific objects in a room here. But it is about the way that a room is and makes you feel. And I’ve also come to know that Mrs. Gardner was a pretty remarkable lighting designer herself. And that you see the paintings the way she felt they should be seen in the light she felt they should be seen in. And, of course, the Gardner Museum is not a place where you run to, come from out of town and spend a few hours here and then leave. It is a place where you do keep coming back to see the paintings, to see the objects, to see the rooms in a new light each time, if you would. And it makes me so aware of the richness that comes from the light around and on the paintings as well as in the paintings.25 

The lighting at Isabella Stewart Gardner’s museum will likely be both celebrated and challenged for years to come, as it was when she first opened its doors. The museum continues to focus, not just on individual works of art, but on the whole experience of being within Gardner’s extraordinary creation. Its staff and visitors will always be influenced by her legacy leaving ‘a Museum for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.’

2 Isabella Stewart Gardner to Bernard Berenson, 1 January 1897. Bernard and Mary Berenson Papers (1880–2002), Biblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti — Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.

5 All photographs referenced are black and white photographs, T. E. Marr and Son, 1903–1926. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, https://www.gardner

7 Sidney Norton Deane to Isabella Stewart Gardner, date unknown. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

9 Paul Clemen to Isabella Stewart Gardner, 20 December 1907. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

10 Larz Anderson to unknown, date unknown in Isabel Anderson (ed.), Larz Anderson: Letters and Journals of a Diplomat (Whitefish: Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011), p. 185.

11 Sissie H. Mortimer to Isabella Stewart Gardner, 18 December 1903. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

16 Will and Codicil of Isabella Stewart Gardner, 9 May 1921, probated 23 July 1924, Suffolk County, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

17 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Inc., Boston, Annual Report (Portland: Southworth-Anthoensen Press, 1925), p. 5.

18 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Inc., Boston, Annual Report (Portland: Southworth-Anthoensen Press, 1930), p. 20.

19 Robert Gardner Rosegrant to Morris Carter, 1937. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

20 Anonymous to Visitor Services, 2011. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

23 Sebastian Smee, ‘Taniguchi, Ando, and the Allure of Japanese Architecture’, Boston Globe, 29 November 2014.

24 Board of Trustees, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 2014.

25 Jennifer Tipton, ‘Light and the Mind’s Eye’, Transcript, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 16 January 1997, p. 4.