At Venice, please, if possible, no dreadful, no vulgar hotel; but, if it can at all be managed ó you know what I mean ó some fine old rooms, wholly independent, for a series of months. Plenty of them too, and the more interesting the better: part of a palace, historic and picturesque, but strictly inodorous, where we shall be to ourselves, with a cook, donít you know? ó with servants, frescoes, tapestries, antiquities, the thorough make-believe of a settlement." Those are the words of Milly Theale in Henry Jamesís 1902 novel The Wings of the Dove, and the rooms she obtains as a result are in the Palazzo Barbaro, whose circle, having formed in the early 1880s, took in James, Robert Browning, James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, John Addington Symonds, Vernon Lee, Bernard Berenson, and Claude Monet. From 1890 on, the Barbaro was also the Venetian base for Isabella and Jack Gardner. The museum she built in the Fenway is celebrating the tail end of its centennial with "Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle," which opens the fourth floor ó Isabellaís residence ó to the public for the first time with a show that has as much to say about the Gardner as it does about Venice.
Isabella and Jack first visited Venice in 1884, on the return leg of a trip to Japan and India, putting up at the fashionable (whether it was also dreadful and vulgar only Milly Theale could tell us) Hotel Europa, on the Canal opposite Santa Maria della Salute. Among the friends they made there were fellow Bostonians Daniel and Ariana Curtis, who had first rented the Palazzo Barbaro in 1881 and who would buy its top floors in 1885 for a mere $13,500. The Gardners returned to the Europa in 1886 and 1888, but in 1890, they rented the Barbaro, where Isabellaís salons became the stuff of legend. By 1896, they were planning a small museum to be built on the site of their house at 152 Beacon Street, but even before Jack died, in December 1898, it had become clear that their acquisitions ó sculpture and architecture as well as paintings ó would require more space. Isabella bought a plot of land in the Fenway and construction began in 1899; the museum, including a fourth-floor apartment, opened January 1, 1903.
Itís not hard to see what drew the Gardners, and especially Isabella, to Venice. Boston had no history to speak of, no extravagant art, no extravagance in anything. Venice was a floating palace of fantasy and mystery, with ancient art treasures awaiting everywhere and adventure just a gondola ride away. For some, the gondola ride was the adventure: the 1884 painting Drifting with the Tide, by Ralph Curtis, the son of Daniel and Ariana, shows a fashionably dressed woman who may be flirting with her gondolier, and Sargentís 1880-í82 Head of a Gondolier, with its sensuous, almost cruel face, raises questions about the relationship between artist and sitter. Isabella herself was able to enjoy the attentions of young male artists in a way that would have been more difficult back home. In 1892, the mother of one such Bostonian, Joseph Lindon Smith, wrote, "She bows sweetly to Joe as he goes by. She has with her one Boston gentleman on the string already and maybe will not require the admiration of our Joseph ó his watchful Ma will sit in ambush and note whatís being done."
"Gondola Days" takes you up the elevator and through Mrs. Gardnerís irregularly shaped dining room (the rectangular dining table has been removed) and her "speak-a-bit" alcove waiting room to the drawing room where she received visitors and her winter bedroom, both of which have been hung with paintings, some bought by Isabella, some borrowed from private collections and other museums. The Museum of Fine Arts has contributed Claude Monetís Le Grand Canal (which he painted at the Barbaro in 1908, two years after Mrs. Gardnerís last visit), and there are works by James Whistler and Anders Zorn, but itís Ralph Curtis and John Sargent who dominate the show. Curtis is an enigma: Drifting with the Tide is agreeably painted and mildly suggestive, whereas Return from the Lido, done the same year (1884, when the Gardners first visited Venice), seems almost amateurish, with its blocky, anonymous depiction of the lady and its conventional composition (Isabella nonetheless bought it, for $150). His San Giorgio by Moonlight, which goes back to 1880-í82, with its two unformed and unsuggestive figures, has the look of a tourist watercolor next to Sargentís contemporary Café on the Riva degli Schiavoni, which bursts at its seams. Curtisís 1885 Scirocco, which is represented by a photograph, is a gauzy depiction of the Ker sisters as two full-bosomed wasp-waisted young ladies, one playing the guitar, the other looking wistfully out over their balcony. In the 1890s, Curtis drifted away from painting. In 1897, he married heiress and widow Lisa Colt. In 1908, Edith Wharton published a story called "The Verdict" in which a successful young artist marries a wealthy widow and then abandons his career. Lisa was livid; in fact, Ralph had abandoned his career before he met her.
Heís not, of course, the only artist who looks second-rate hanging next to Sargent. Antonio Manciniís Daniel Sargent Curtis and Ariana Wormeley Curtis, both done in the early 1880s, are sensitive portraits of a middle-aged couple (he was born in 1825, she in 1833); in his face you might detect a hint of the pride and pugnaciousness that led to his serving two months in the Brookline jail in 1869 for twisting a lawyerís nose on a Chestnut Hill streetcar and thereafter refusing to apologize. And a photograph taken at the Barbaro in 1888 shows Ariana Curtis in the same kind of lace cap and demure pose, so itís not as if Manciniís pastel werenít accurate. But Sargentís Ariana Curtis, which he did in 1882, shows a different woman, vibrant, determined, with her tight lips and pointed chin, the cap pushed back to reveal her glossy dark hair. She looks 10 years younger and 10 years more beautiful. Is it flattery, or is Sargent seeing through the ravages of age?
Henry Jamesís negative reaction to Sargentís 1898 painting of Lisa Curtis notwithstanding, itís a Jamesian portrait of a 28-year-old woman who, arms back and bare shoulders forward, is well aware of what her wealth and her beauty are worth. James particularly disliked the elaborateness of her silver dress ("indeed it seems to me that her certainly very striking beauty is of an order to rejoice in clothes the least fustian possible"); and though it is the sort of "fustian" costume that might have appealed to Sargent, itís also one that Lisa likely knew she could outshine. The other Curtis painting Sargent did in 1898, A Venetian Interior, shows the family in their salone. Ralph and Lisa stand to the left, Ralph lounging against the edge of a table in a distinctly flâneur pose, Lisa looking prim as she finishes puring tea. Daniel and Ariana sit in the right foreground, Daniel white-maned, intent on his newspaper, Ariana looking a little vacantly at the artist and seeming much older than she did in 1882. The interior itself is dark (Ludwig Passiniís 1855 watercolor The Salone of the Palazzo Barbaro shows how much life there was in the room), as if the century were closing in on the Curtises (Ralph and Lisa didnít spend much time there after their marriage, and Daniel died in 1908), or as if the glory of Venice were lost on them.
Sargent did not visit Venice between 1882 and 1898, and so he never saw Mrs. Gardner there (she came in 1897 and 1899). The celebrated 1894 portrait that the Swedish painter and Barbaro circle member Anders Zorn did of her, Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, has Sargentís flamboyance but not his insight. Writing to Joseph Lindon Smith, Isabella described it as "A night scene, painted at night. I am on the balcony, stepping down into the Salone pushing both sides of the window back with my arms raised up and spread wide! Exactly like me." Done on the spur of the moment, Zornís painting is a tour-de-force depiction of Mrs. Gardner as a dove descending, as the hostess of Veniceís most brilliant salon. Itís Isabella as she undoubtedly saw herself, but the blurred ó appropriately, one might argue ó face doesnít convey the complexity of Sargentís 1888 Boston painting of Isabella (where the tension is conveyed by her expression, her posture, and her dress) or even Passiniís rejected and now lost 1892 pastel, which brings out her childlike side.
In 1888, Ralph Curtis wrote to tell Mrs. Gardner that the Palazzo Contarini-Fasan (opposite the Salute) was for sale and that if she bought it, her bedroom "would be Desdemonaís balcony room." When Mrs. Gardnerís father died, in 1891, she inherited a reported $1.75 million. Given that Daniel Curtis paid just $13,500 for the Barbaro, itís clear that she could have bought a Venetian palazzo had she wanted one. The Curtises were happy to live in Venice, to read and study history and walk in their garden on the Giudecca. Milly Theale, who knows sheís dying, makes the Barbaro "the ark of her deluge." Isabellaís "gondola days" seem to have been just that, a refuge from but not a replacement for Boston. She wasnít ready for the "thorough make-believe of a settlement"; after Jackís death, she visited Venice just twice, in 1899 and 1906. Her "ark" was the museum she built in the Fenway, and in Boston, as opposed to Venice, there was nothing like it.
The artwork and the memorabilia collected for the show only hint at the story told in the accompanying catalogue. More like a book, Gondola Days offers essays by the four curators plus "John Sargentís Fountain of Youth" by the MFAís Erica Hirshler, "A Venetian Courtyard in Boston" by Giovanna de Appolonia, "The Palazzo Barbaro Before the Curtises" by Marino Zorzi, and "My Barbaro" by Patricia Curtis Viganò, Daniel and Arianaís granddaughter, who has lived in the Barbaro all her life. Here youíll find the complete story of the infamous "Proboscis Pulling" as well as biographies of the Barbaro circle (and very few slip-ups, though on page 228 the church in Ralph Curtisís San Giorgio by Moonlight is, of course, not Santa Maria della Salute but San Giorgio Maggiore). The Gardner is also offering its usual invaluable series of talks and lectures; for a schedule, visit www.gardnermuseum.org.
ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER brought art to Boston and created a unique building to house it. George Balanchine brought ballet to America and created a unique company to perform it. Like the Gardner Museum, Balanchine is celebrating his centennial this year, and though dance, unlike the art that Mrs. Gardner collected, is a transitory form, his genius nonetheless illuminates "George Balanchine: A Lifeís Journey in Ballet," which is up at Harvard Universityís Pusey Library through May 28. Put together by Harvard Theatre Collection curator Fredric Woodbridge Wilson and dance historian (and Phoenix contributor) Iris Fanger, it gathers letters, contracts, telegrams, programs, posters, photographs, manuscripts, set designs, costumes, and the odd toe shoe. The curators had the George Balanchine Papers, which he left to Harvard after his death in 1983, at their disposal, but they also delved into the Harvard Theatre Collection archives to bring to life one of the most original, and enjoyable, artistic minds of the 20th century.
"I taught what I learned as a child in St. Petersburg at the Maryinsky School." Thatís the deceptively simple statement that starts off one case of exhibits in an outer room of the show, and itís a reminder that artistic achievements have technical foundations. Mr. Bís foundation is laid in the second-innermost room of the show, where youíll find letters from his parents, the 1924 contract, in old-spelling Russian, between Diaghilev and "Georgii M[elitonovich] Balanchivadze," and a 1929 souvenir program for the Ballets Russes with a photo of the handsome 25-year-old "Georges" Balanchine. The innermost room records his early experiences on Broadway and in Hollywood: Babes in Arms, I Was an Adventuress (set to music from Swan Lake), The Goldwyn Follies, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, On Your Toes (which included Slaughter on Tenth Avenue), Louisiana Purchase, and much more, with posters and photographs. The room also houses Al Hirschfeldís New York Times drawing of an impossibly long and leggy Galina Panova as Vera Barnova in the 1983 revival of On Your Toes plus his color lithograph of Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell ó even longer and leggier, if thatís possible, in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. The latter is accompanied by a 1968 Martha Swope photo of Mitchell and Farrell in rehearsal with Mr. B, who appears to have both hands around Suzanneís throat. Two programs of music that Balanchine used alternate; I caught the slow movement of Bachís Double Violin Concerto (Concerto Barocco) and the waltz from Tchaikovskyís Serenade for Strings (Serenade).
Balanchine was also founding the School of American Ballet, whose first performances included the 1933 version of Mozartiana (thereís a photo of Heidi Vosseler and Hortense Korklyn) and the curiosity Alma Mater, which draws on the Ralph Henry Barbour novels Stover at Yale and Winning Your Y for its story. After the heroics of the star halfback, the program tells us, "Snake dance is a rah-rah bacchanale, not even the goalposts left standing." It gets stranger when he falls in love: "No sooner met than married, and to the triumphant march which hailed him on the gridiron, he weds his pantied pride." But no stranger than George Lyne Plattís studio photograph of a fully clothed Balanchine with an apparently unclothed (theyíre in shadow from the waist down) Nicholas Magallanes and Marie-Jeanne. Next to that, youíll find Melton-Pippinís photograph of Mr. B and his cat Mourka. And in the adjoining Theatre Collection lobby, thereís the color poster for Ballet of the Elephants, which the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus commissioned from Balanchine; set to Igor Stravinskyís Circus Polka, it was presented April 9, 1942, at Madison Square Garden, with Vera Zorina (then Mrs. B) riding "prima ballerina" Modoc, who was a famous performer in her own right.
The letters offer their own hilarious moments. Writing on September 2, 1959, Sergei Denham of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo proposes that George and he "have lunch together and reminisce of the days when we were both naughty children." What he really has on his mind, however, is "restoring to our repertoire your ballets Serenade and Concerto Barocco. Morally and legally we have all the right to do so." Still, he wants Balanchineís blessing. Whatís more, heís eager, he says, to "uphold the virginity of your choreography," and to that end he proposes hiring Vida Brown to set the pieces. Balanchine replied a week later that "I donít eat lunch because of cholesterol and gout. If you feel that you have a moral and legal right to mount my ballets Serenade and Concerto Barocco, I suppose the only moral right left to me is to collect royalties. My royalty fee is fifty dollars per performance." He adds that he has no objection to their hiring Vida Brown as long as theyíre willing to pay her: "She usually gets five hundred dollars per ballet when she teaches my ballets to other companies."
Mr. B and Barbra? It wasnít his fault they didnít collaborate. In her letter of September 26, 1975, Streisand thanks Mr. B for his invitation to sing Anna I in a revival of The Seven Deadly Sins (Lotte Lenya had the role in the 1958 original) but says, "Right now I am totally committed to my homelife and my family until January 1976, when production begins on my new film [A Star Is Born]." More poignant, and painful, is the letter Suzanne Farrell wrote to Balanchine on November 7, 1973. "Even though you say you donít remember Meditation [a work he choreographed for her and Jacques díAmboise in 1963], Iíd like you to come, if you want. Mr. Béjart, too, would be so honored. . . . In any event, thank you . . . and my performance of Meditation December 19th will be for you. Love, Suzi."
Like the canals of Isabella Stewart Gardnerís Venice, the show holds surprises at every turn. A program for the premiere of A Midsummer Nightís Dream ó January 17, 1962 ó lists Edward Villella as Oberon, Melissa Hayden as Titania, and Arthur Mitchell as Puck; but if you look farther down, among "Titaniaís handmaidens," youíll find Farrellís name. The program for the fledgling Boston Ballet Company on January 12, 1966, lists Balanchine as the "artistic advisor" (E. Virginia Williams is the "artistic director"). His Allegro Brillante is on the program, with NCYBís Sara Leland and Earle Sieveling (both of whom started with Boston Ballet) dancing and Gordon Boelzner at the piano; itís a reminder of his generosity to other companies. Some of the photographs are iconic ó Edward Villella and Allegra Kent in Bugaku; Farrell in Tzigane; Mikhail Baryshnikov doing the signature opening leap from Prodigal Son ó but there are plenty of less familiar shots, like Mr. B playing Drosselmeier in The Nutcracker and talking with Farrell during the 1966 filming of A Midsummer Nightís Dream. Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen has contributed a 1985 Basel Ballet photo of himself and Amanda Bennet in the Phlegmatic section of The Four Temperaments.
Not everything Balanchine touched turned to gold. Of his songs, the only one known to have been published is "The World Is Turning Fast," but the one whose words and lyrics we get a look at here is "Last Night I Dreamt." Then there are unrealized projects like his "Audubon and Appleseed: An American Dream," a ballet he and Lincoln Kirstein wanted to base on Audubonís Birds of America. It sounds like a terrible idea, but whoís to say the man who made America his ballet ark and floated it all over the world couldnít have pulled it off.
"Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle"Curated by Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Alan Chong, Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, and Richard Lingner. At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through August 15.
"George Balanchine: A Lifeís Journey in Ballet"Curated by Fredric Woodbridge Wilson and Iris M. Fanger. At the Harvard Theatre Collection in Pusey Library through May 28.
Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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