WRITTEN BY Bek Mitchell-Kidd
Photography courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Upon purchasing Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait (1629) in 1896, Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband Jack decided their ambitions as collectors required more space than their residence permitted and began to explore the idea of a museum.
At first the couple considered expanding their current home, combining two houses on Beacon Street. However, as Isabella’s collection and ambitions continued to grow, Jack felt it would be more sensible to buy land and build a new building for a museum with apartments for their residence.
The Gardners loved Italy, and Isabella was passionate about Venice. In the summer of 1897, Isabella and Jack traveled through Venice, Florence and Rome to gather architectural fragments for the museum. They purchased columns, windows, doorways, balustrades and statuary from the Roman, Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance periods.
Jack Gardner died suddenly of a stroke in 1898. Isabella continued with their shared plan to purchase a plot of land in the Fens area of Boston and hired architect Willard Sears, who had remodeled the couple’s house in Brookline.
Gardner visited and participated in the museum construction daily; in 1901 she moved into the private fourth-floor living quarters and devoted herself to personally arranging works of art in the historic galleries.
Isabella filled her museum with visual and performing artists, organizing concerts, lectures and exhibitions and encouraging artists to make themselves at home. John Singer Sargent painted in the Gothic Room, Ruth St. Denis danced her famous piece The Cobra in the Cloisters, and Australian opera star Nellie Melba performed from the balcony of the Dutch Room.
Isabella suffered a stroke in 1919 but continued to receive guests for the next five years. She died in 1924, leaving a museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” She provided an endowment to operate the museum, stipulating in her will that nothing in the galleries should be changed, and no items be acquired or sold in the collection.
…the Gardner is more remarkable than it looks at first. This is a palace that has been turned inside out…The Gardner’s real facades are the four sides of the atrium…And these mottled indoor facades are washed by sunlight that is modulated…in such a way that it often resembles light reflected off water, as it would be in Venice.
— Architecture critic, Robert Campbell, 2002
In 2002 an ambitious new plan was required to allow the historic building to continue to accommodate thousands of visitors every week. The vision included a new building of 80,000 square feet. Like Isabella’s museum, the new building is a work of art designed by architect Renzo Piano.
Today the entire museum is approximately 133,000 square feet in total; the new building is 70,000 square feet and the Palace (historic building) is 63,000 square feet. In 2017, the Gardner Museum welcomed more than 300,000 visitors.
Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth is currently on exhibition. Sarah Whitling of the museum’s marketing team explains that this is a “once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. On display together for the first time in more than 200 years are four newly restored reliquaries painted for the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Visitors and reviewers alike are dazzled by Fra Angelico’s genius storytelling and brilliant use of color and gilding.”
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is in the Fenway–Kenmore neighborhood of Boston near the Back Bay Fens at 25 Evans Way. Guided tours and talks are available throughout the week. For more information, visit gardnermuseum.org.
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as police officers entered the Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art by world-renowned artists such as Manet and Degas. The works, including Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (his only known seascape) and Vermeer’s The Concert, are worth more than $500 million. It remains the biggest unsolved art theft in world history.
Today empty frames hang in the Museum as a placeholder for the missing works.
Sarah Whitling, Museum Marketing, says, “The theft is an active and ongoing investigation and we remain hopeful for the return of the artworks. The museum, the FBI and the US Attorney’s office are still seeking viable leads that could result in safe return of the art There’s a reward of $10 million for information leading directly to the recovery of all 13 works in good condition. A separate reward of $100,000 is being offered for the return of the Napoleonic eagle finial.” Anyone with information about the stolen artworks or the investigation should contact the Gardner Museum directly. Confidentiality and anonymity are guaranteed. Contact: Anthony Amore, Director of Security, 617-278-5114, firstname.lastname@example.org.