Imagine a Venetian palazzo dripping with Renaissance grandeur, lush gardens, and some of the world’s finest art. Indeed, there is a lot to take in at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Established in Boston by Gardner in 1903, the eponymous museum offers a close look at masterworks by Matisse, Sargent Whistler, Rembrandt, and Titian, as well as historic tapestries, sculpture, furniture, and manuscripts galore. Elegant and bohemian with a dash of intrigue, the museum is a true reflection of Isabella herself. It’s well worth a visit for art lovers – or for those who just want to learn more about the colorful spirit behind it.
A bit about Isabella Stewart Gardner
Isabella Stewart was born in 1840 to wealthy New York linen merchant David Stewart and his wife Adelia. Typical of young women from New York high society, Isabella studied art, history, music, dance, and romance languages. At 16, Isabella and her family moved to Paris where she “finished” at a school for the daughters of well-to-do Americans.
At 19, Isabella married John Lowell “Jack” Gardner, heir to the Gardner importing/shipping fortune and a member of the Lowell and Gardner Boston Brahmin families. Shortly thereafter, the couple established residence in Boston’s tony Beacon Hill.
A son soon followed in 1863 but tragically died of pneumonia two years later. In a bid to shake their depression, Isabella and Jack spent the next several years traveling abroad with trips to Europe, Russia, Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia.
During this period, Isabella reignited her interest in art and history and collected rare books and artwork along the way. The Gardners frequented ex-pat soirées where they got to know painters John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, and Ralph Curtis, among others. The Palazzo Barbaro, a Venetian palace owned by Boston friends, was a favorite Gardner stomping ground and became Isabella’s inspiration for the construction of her own palazzo a few years later.
By 1898, the Gardners had returned to the U.S. with plans to build a palace/museum in the Fens (a remote section of Boston) to house their extensive art collection. When Jack died suddenly of a stroke that year, Isabella continued the project on her own.
By 1901, the Fens palazzo was completed. Isabella moved her residence there from Beacon Hill and spent the next several years installing her vast collection of artwork in its galleries and salons.
In 1903, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, housing one of the finest private art collections in the country, was opened for public viewing. Isabella continued to add to her formidable collection for the rest of her life. By her death 23 years later, she had filled every museum nook with an artifact, painting, or curio of some sort.
In her will, Isabella left an endowment to support the museum but stipulated that nothing in the galleries was to be moved; nor were items to be acquired or sold. In short, the museum today is essentially the way she left it nearly 100 years ago.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – a description
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum building is, in itself, a captivating work of art. Built in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palazzo, the building consists of four floors (three with public galleries) surrounding a central, all-season courtyard overflowing with seasonal blooms, lush ferns, and exotic greens. Though decidedly public, the museum is personal in design; it’s easy to see that it was, once, as much a private residence as a civic space.
The interiors are comprised of interlocking galleries, loggias, and salons – even a chapel – and adorned with boatfuls of architectural elements from the Gardners’ European travels. There are marble columns, stained glass, church pews, and carved doors from Italy; reliefs and statuary from antiquity, as well as balustrades, capitals, and wrought iron from the Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance periods. The effect is intoxicating – if not downright dizzying – and we haven’t even gotten to the artwork exhibits themselves.
To be sure, the museum’s collection is extensive, if eclectic, and includes works from A-list American, European, and Asian masters from various eras. There are 8th-century Islamic manuscripts, Roman sarcophagi, an Art Nouveau silver cabinet, Han dynasty mat weights, tapestries, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, and on and on and on. Artistic celebs Sargent, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Matisse, Titan, and Whistler are well represented.
Pieces are loosely arranged by style, period, and nationality, except when they’re not. Adjacent to the Spanish Cloister, for example, resides the Yellow Room, which holds works by the incongruous pair of Matisse and Whistler. Just go with it.
The theft of 1990
In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police entered the museum on the phony premise of responding to a disturbance. After tying up the security guards on duty, the thieves made away with 13 of the greatest works in the museum’s collection, if not the world. They included Vermeer’s “The Concert” – one of only 36 works ever produced by the artist; Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm of the Sea of Galilee”; and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black”; among others. The FBI put the loss at about $500 million, perhaps the largest art theft ever recorded.
Thirty years later, no arrests have been made, though speculation generally centers on local mob involvement. An active investigation into the crime is ongoing and a juicy reward of $10 million is on the table for information leading to the recovery of the works.
Several of the stolen pieces were cut or removed from their frames, which have been left empty on the walls. This gives the museum an air of mystery and brings a sort of theatrical, albeit sobering, effect when they are seen up close.
What to see
With over 7,500 exquisite items on display you really can’t go wrong by just meandering through the museum at a leisurely pace. Still, there are a few objets d’art that we think would be hard to pass up.
For starters, the Spanish Cloister features John Singer Sargent’s early masterpiece “El Jaleo,” and the Raphael Room holds the artist’s “Lamentation Over The Dead Christ” – a precursor to his magnificent “The Deposition” and others with the same theme. Titian’s masterpiece, “The Rape of Europa,” takes center stage in the Titian Room, an honor befitting the work as well as Isabella’s efforts to secure it. She apparently outbid buyers from both Paris’s Musée du Louvre and London’s National Gallery to snag it for her collection.
A visit to the central courtyard is a must. Aside from enjoying its clusters of seasonal blooms, floral garlands, and lush foliage, you can tiptoe among Isabella’s astounding collection of Greek and Roman mosaics and statuary.
General information for your visit
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is open every day from 11am-5pm except Tuesdays. Tickets are available for $15 online and it’s best to arrive early to avoid the crowds. Many of the rooms are fairly cluttered and make for difficult viewing and maneuvering when full of visitors.
Oh, and another thing: In Isabella’s day, information plaques were never placed adjacent to the pieces; nor was the lighting terribly good. In keeping with the strict provisions of her will – that nothing within the museum is to be changed – these limitations remain. Visitors instead have to carry around a series of laminated cards (provided at the entrance) for information on what they are looking at. As such, audio guides are highly recommended and are a pretty good deal for an additional $5. Free tours are also available, though tend to fill up quickly.
The onsite Café G offers a modern setting (it’s part of the new entry wing designed by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano) with both indoor and outdoor seating for enjoying a civilized lunch and a glass of Pinot. The Grilled Flank Steak Salad with greens, radish, wild rice, oregano, and feta is just the ticket, best capped by the Tiramisù Jar with mascarpone, mocha sauce, and lady fingers.
The Gift at the Gardner is the museum’s well-stocked gift shop that includes a sizable selection of art, books, accessories, and other items. We couldn’t decide between the Tai fish Welcome Soap (a soap on a rope suitable as a hostess gift) and the Leicester wallpaper-printed garden pruners, so ended up, happily, with both.
For more information, updated schedules, and events, visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum online.