Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 24, 2008
Patricia Vigderman The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner Louisville: Sarabande, 2007. 151 pp.; 29 b/w ills. Paper $14.95 (9781932511437)
Ellen B. Hirschland and Nancy Hirschland Ramage The Cone Sisters of Baltimore: Collecting at Full Tilt Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008. 352 pp.; 48 color ills.; 58 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780810124813)

Collectors, it sometimes seems, are a necessary evil. Artists create, and we art writers explain the significance of what they make. But collectors, who usually are privileged people, mostly only pick up the check. Too often they treat art as a form of speculation, and so are ready to resell when its value increases. And many of them are not shy about hustling for tips. As a dealer explained to me over dinner, after the newly rich purchase their houses and yacht, they come to his gallery to get their art. Well, they have to do something with their money. When magazines like Art News devote attention to collectors, they focus excessive attention on the unavoidable relationship between the art market and the superrich. Myself, sometimes when I read lavishly illustrated accounts about the hundred most important collectors, I wish that state socialism had triumphed.

The Cone sisters and Isabella Stewart Gardner were collectors who came from a different world. Claribel and Etta Cone, daughters of a German immigrant who made his fortune in North Carolina textiles, were comfortable enough to travel and not to need to marry. As visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Art can see, they collected wisely. Ellen and Nancy Hirschland, great-niece and great-great-niece of the sisters, tell this story without offering more than routine information about the art of Henri Matisse or the other figures collected by the Cones. Of Jewish origin, the Cones seem not to have thought themselves as Jewish. Claribel, who became a doctor, was apolitical enough to live in Germany during World War I. The book describes them as comfortable, but not rich. They were, anyway, rich enough to spend $18,900 in 1925 on a Paul Cézanne landscape.

This agreeable book never probes deeply. We don’t learn why these two women adopted an eccentric lifestyle. We never are given interesting information about why, for example, they liked Matisse’s luscious Nice nudes, or what they really thought about Gertrude Stein, who was a contentious friend. The book was long in the writing; Ellen Hirschland died in 1999 and so Nancy Hirschland Ramage finished it. But the use of privileged archival materials does not yield any interesting art-historical insights, or, even, a convincing picture of the Cones. Perhaps it would take a creative writer, Henry James or, better still, Ivy Compton-Burnett to properly tell the story of these two very extraordinary women.

Gardner has been much written about, but as yet getting her museum into focus is not easy. Patricia Vigderman takes on that challenge. An early supporter of Bernard Berenson, Gardner has been recently identified as a feminist and as a social activist. In truth, however, she seems to have been an eccentric rich lady who had a very good eye. Her museum is just around the corner from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But while that institution is now a regular up-to-date museum, with an enormous shop and restaurant, the Gardner remains a monument to a distant period style. (It does have a small shop and café.) Sometimes it feels like an upscale thrift shop, presenting the objects she accumulated, many of them of indifferent aesthetic quality, without any rational order. Certainly it’s frustrating to see her masterpiece, Titian’s Rape of Europa, skied in bad lighting. That the room contains almost a hundred other objects makes it hard to bring the painting into focus. Generous in opening her collection to the public, her will controls how we see her possessions. It’s her pleasure, still, that rules. The one time I reviewed a Gardner exhibition, the curator, refusing to give me a catalogue, offered me a pencil to take notes, and then was miffed when I refused to send her a copy of my review. Dealing with the servants of the rich teaches willfulness.

Vigderman very sensitively explores the ambivalence Gardner’s personality inspires nowadays. “The combination of out-of-sight social entitlement and female undereducation still distances me from Isabella and troubles my perception of her museum” (40). She has interesting and funny things to say, not just about Gardner’s masterpieces, but also about her many very minor works of art and memorabilia. A Dutch nineteenth-century Hand-Mirror (with handle made from knitting-needle case) is given more attention than Rape of Europa. Vigderman talks with the guards, who provide interesting information. She discusses the famous theft and traces the role of Joseph Kosuth, who as artist-in-residence responded to the collection. Describing the setting, “What is the conversation going on here, and how am I part of it?” (78), she nicely identifies the difficulty of tactfully responding to such collections.

Like the Cones, Gardner escaped, in part, traditional limiting women’s roles. She did marry, but her husband did not have much effect upon her museum. She was rich enough to go her own way. Compared, of course, to her grand contemporary Pierpont Morgan, she was not all that wealthy. But if you read her published correspondence with Berenson, you sense her visual intelligence. Not much at home with contemporary art, she did collect some magnificent old masters. And nowadays when every museum—like the Wallace in London or the Cleveland Museum of Art—wants to enclose its courtyard, it’s easy to forget how original her building was.

In gathering together objects they are passionate about, collectors express themselves. Just as Marcel Duchamp made art from already existing objects, which became his readymades, so collectors create total works of art by gathering together things they care about. And so, to continue the parallel, only a poetic response to a museum can do justice to that collection. This is most pleasurable book that I have read, and I have read the literature, about an art museum. Even if you never get to Boston, you will love reading it, for Vidgerman, a writerly writer, is not given to digressive discussions of theory. No mention here of Foucault or Lacan. I hope that the Gardner or indeed any museum that would encourage a creative response to its collection will sell The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner in the gift shop.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar