A Venetian Palace in Boston: the Must See Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Updated: Aug 8
"Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth." -- Isabella Stewart Gardner
If you're a museum or art lover, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a must see site in Boston Massachusetts. I just adored it. The exquisite Venetian-style palazzo houses gorgeous paintings from the Italian Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age paintings. And it's mostly the work of one extraordinary woman -- Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Can anyone resist a fearless, kick-ass woman with a vision? Not me, I fell in love with Isabella Stewart Gardner straight away. She was a maverick, especially in a day when women were supposed to be seen and not heard. She collected what she wanted, traveled where she wanted, and wore what she wanted -- even if it caused a scandal. She was full of elan, verve, and could even be a tad eccentric.
To be sure, Gardner's lifestyle was facilitated by great wealth. But she put her wealth to splendid use, building a stunning and timeless museum and gifting it to Boston. A visit to her museum is one of the best things to do in Boston, an absolute must see sight in Beantown.
The Woman Behind The Amazing Art in Boston
Born in New York in 1840, Isabella Stewart Gardner was an arts patron, philanthropist and socialite.
In 1860, she married Bostonian Jack Gardner. She fell into a deep depression after the death of her infant child and subsequent miscariage. As a tonic and geographical cure, her husband took her on an 18 month world tour and they traveled extensively thereafter. Her favorite city was Venice.
As she traveled, Gardner developed a passion for art. She avidly began acquiring it, advised by Bernard Berenson, a connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art. Over time, and after inheriting her father's fortune, she amassed a collection of more than 2,500 objects spanning from antiquity to the 1920s.
She and her husband planned to build and open a private museum for their burgeoning collection. In 1899, Gardner purchased land in the then undeveloped Fenway area of Boston. She began constructing a grand mansion that she called "Fenway Court." It was modeled after the 15th century Palazzo Barbaro in Venice.
Upon her husband's death, with her characteristic energy, Gardner took on the project herself, supervising every detail with a hands on approach that sometimes surprised her architect and builders. According to the museum,
When ceiling beams arrived for the Gothic Room and were too smooth for her liking, she took an ax in hand and hacked away to achieve the desired result.
Once the building was completed in 1902, Gardner spent a year carefully curating and installing her collection amid the three floors of intimate gallery spaces. The eponymous museum opened in 1903. Gardner lived in the private fourth floor living quarters until her death in 1924.
She had transcendent ideas about the importance of art in an ever-changing world. Art, she believed, made the greatest civilizations immortal. And she was on a mission to bring art to the American public.
On her death, Gardner left her palace-museum to Boston to be used “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” But there was a proviso. She specified in her will that not one artifact, piece of furniture, or painting was ever to be added, removed, re-arranged, or loaned. If this proviso was violated, the art would be donated to Harvard. As a result, the museum is almost frozen in time.
The Palace & Courtyard
The museum, like its patron, is a spectacle both inside and out.
I couldn't get enough of the dramatic interior courtyard with its skylit glass roof. In the courtyard, which can be seen from virtually every room on every level, Isabella combined Roman, Venetian, and medieval architectural elements and sculpture. She essentially created a Mediterranean setting for her art collection.
The courtyard is full of sculptures representing powerful women from classical mythology, including Artemis and Persephone. Facing Artemis across the courtyard is a small marble "throne"where Gardner is said to have sat, meditating on her installations.
The house is filled with gorgeous antique furniture. Each room is named and sumptuously decorated. In effect, the museum is a total work of art with Gardner as the installation artist.
The Museum & Gardner's Curatorial Philosophy
The museum is not exactly a curator's idea of the best place to view art. The lighting is poor (dim to preserve the paintings), the placement of the paintings and sculptures is somewhat random and over-crowded. There are no identifying labels.
This, of course, was exactly Gardner's aesthetic intent. For her, art wasn't separate from life. Gardner wanted an intimate personal museum, not a cold, sterile mausoleum-like one. She wanted the viewer to appreciate the art itself, to have an immersive emotional experience. She didn't want to provide an art history lesson; she wanted viewers to find their own meaning.
As a result, Gardner's museum is delightfully atypical. It's a one-of-a-kind experience, a creation of one woman's idiosyncratic personal vision. You have to experience it on her terms.
The collection is so varied, and the setting and ambience so unique, it's a joy to peruse the museum. You are as equally likely to marvel at mosaics or a ceiling or a sculpture as you are at the paintings.
Isabella mantra was, “it’s my pleasure.” But it is likely to be yours as well.
In this way, Gardner's museum is similar to the Barnes Foundation, another private collection in Philadelphia infused with the deeply personal, convention-be-damned sensibility of its founder Albert Barnes.
One slight deviation from Gardner's iron clad will is the new modern exhibition hall, the Hostetter Gallery, designed by Renzo Piano. There, some of her masterpieces are, temporarily, taken off the Italian red silk walls and hung in a proper gallery with modern lighting for all to admire without the superimposition of her vision.
While I was there, there was a Botticelli Exhibition, featuring his famous Tragedy of Lucretria, usually a denizen of the Raphael Room.
Overview of the Gardner Museum
After entering via a lobby in the museum's new wing, you cross a glass walled corridor to the original museum structure, the Palace.
There are three floors of galleries.
On the first floor, highlights include the Spanish Cloister with its enormous Moorish framed piece by John Singer Sargent, the Blue Room, and the Yellow Room. On the second floor, there is the Dutch Room, the Raphael Room, the Early Italian Room, and the Tapestry Room. On the third floor, there is the Gothic Room, the Veronese Room, and the Titian
Room. There is also a long gallery that includes a chapel. Your final stop is the Gothic Room, featuring the controversial and iconic painting of Gardner by John Singer Sargent.
In each gallery, you'll find laminated guides that identify the works displayed. They are a handy alternative to the traditional wall plaques.
Highlights of the Artwork at the Gardner Museum in Boston
1. Farnese Sarcophagus
One of the museum's most important works is the Farnese Sarcophagus. It is a stone coffin, located in the courtyard. It was created in Athens around 225 A.D. In keeping with its garden setting, the sculpture is a celebration of spring. Recent conservation work shows that the sarcophagus was once painted. Even today, there are faint traces of purple paint on the grapes.
2. John Singer Sargent, Gardner's Lifelong Friend
El Jaleo, a large 1879 Singer Sargent piece, is unconventional, dramatic, and romantic. Singer Sargent wanted the painting to express his love of gypsy music and dance. The name of the painting, El Jaleo, suggests a dance but also a broader meaning of a ruckus. You can almost feel the strumming from the paint swirls. The passionate painting seems to capture an instantaneous moment.
The painting is displayed in the Spanish Cloister and is surrounded by intricate tile work. Gardner had the room, with its Moorish arches, made specially for the painting and positioned it just off the main entry.
Singer Sargent painted a variety of subjects, but is best known for his portraits of Gilded Age robber barons and society ladies. Gardner purchased 61 of his works over the course of their long friendship. One of his finest is on display in the Blue Room, Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast.
3. Rembrandt, Self Portrait Age 23
Rembrandt seemed to have a sub specialty in self portraits. He made over 80 of them in his lifetime, exploring his own face and personality in endless ways. This self portrait is an early work, but shows his great talent, with dramatic light and shading. After purchasing this painting, of great value, Isabella decided that her collection was important enough to form a public museum.
Gardner's three other Rembrandt's were stolen in a monumental art heist, which I discuss below.
4. Francisco Zurbarán, A Doctor of Law, 1635
I quite liked this dramatic 17th century Spanish portrait. Following a spectacular debut in Madrid, Zurbarán dominated the market for religious paintings. He served as court painter to the Spanish King Philip IV. His portraits, though, are extremely rare. Zurbarán's portraiture style was austere and even harsh, with a dramatic use of light and shadow.
Gardner went to great lengths to obtain this piece, finally purchasing it from the Ehrich Galleries when, after a visit, the owner fell "under the spell of [Gardner's] enchanted palace."
It is oddly on display in the Dutch Room where it sits in stark contrast to more ornate paintings.
5. Titian's Rape of Europa, 1560-62
The Rape of Europa, perhaps the most valuable piece in Gardner's collection, is now undergoing conservation. The brilliantly hued painting was originally commissioned for Phillip II of Spain. It is inspired by a mythological story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Jupiter, king of the gods, is infatuated with Europa. He turns himself into a bull and abducts her.
Titian is widely considered the most important painter of the 16th century Venetian school. At the time she acquired the painting, Gardner set a world record for her purchase, outbidding representatives of the Louvre and London's National Gallery.
6. Pierro Della Francesca's Hercules, 1470
Hercules is in the Early Italian Room, which highlights Gardner's love of Italian Renaissance painting. You can identify Hercules by his club and his lion's skin. He has a curiously ambiguous expression; it can be interpreted as either confidence or indecision. A carefully placed knot avoids full nudity, although that was the norm at the time.
The painting was originally a fresco in the artist's house. When Isabella bought it, it was detached with a portion of the supporting wall. This is the only Pierro Della Francesca fresco outside italy.
7. Raphael, Lamentation over the Dead Christ & Count Tomasso Inghirami
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ was Gardner's second Raphael acquisition. It is a small panel, with luminous colors, casually set on a table in the now fully renovated Raphael Room. The 1504 painting was originally part of an altarpiece in Perugia Italy. Even though it is an early work, Raphael imbues his figures with the empathy and sweetness beloved in his later paintings.
Gardner's other Raphael, Count Tomasso Inghirami ,1515-16, is also in the Raphael Room on the wall above the small panel.
8. Sandro Botticelli, The Tragedy of Lucretia
This epic Botticelli piece is a tempera and oil painting on wood. It was the first Botticelli to come to the U.S. Most Botticelli's are in Florence's magnificent Uffizi Gallery.
It's a brightly colored painting of Lucretia's rape and suicide, It shows the agony and disbelief of the onlookers as they see Lucretia lying on a stone with a dagger in her chest. In addition to the luminous colors, Botticelli creates the illusion of space with a linear perspective.
Art historian Laurence Kanter described it as "certainly one of the great masterpieces of Florentine painting from the last years of probably its greatest period, the golden age of the fifteenth century."
9. Paolo Veronese, The Coronation of Hebe, 1580-89
In 1899, while construction of the museum was well under way, Isabella acquired The Coronation of Hebe, then attributed to Veronese. Gardner commissioned gilded paneling in Milan to frame the work in appropriate splendor in her palace.
The Veronese Room, which takes its name from the ceiling painting, is stuffed with splendid mixture of objects. Balancing the stunning and huge Coronation on the ceiling are several pastels executed on an intimate scale by Isabella’s contemporary, James McNeill Whistler.
10. John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Isabella Stewart
In this Singer Sargent portrait, Gardner appears almost like a religious figure with the wallpaper patterns giving the effect of a halo or crown. Gardner is wearing her trademark pearls and her trademark low cut dress.
Gardner was not a good sitter, being too restless. Singer Sargent made eight attempts to capture her likeness and was about to give up. But the ninth try was a success.
When the portrait was unveiled, critics savaged it. Gardner's husband asked that it not be exhibited again. Unlike Gardner, who loved the portrait, Jack disliked the painting, saying that "It looks like hell, but looks like you." The Gothic Room was then closed to the public during her lifetime.
The World's Biggest Art Heist: 81 Minutes
At 1:24 am on March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as policeman gained entry to the Gardner Museum and pulled off the greatest heist in art history. They told the guards they were there to investigate a disturbance; the guard on duty broke protocol and let them in.
The thieves handcuffed the guards and, in 81 minutes, stole 13 works of art including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and sketches by Degas.
They likely came for the Rembrandts. There is a long history of stolen Rembrandts. So they hit the Dutch room first. They stole Rembrandt van Rijn's only known seascape, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and his painting A Lady and a Gentleman in Black. They cut one of his self portraits from the frame, Self Portrait Age 23 but then oddly left it behind.
They also stole a Johannes Vermeer from the Dutch Room, The Concert. There are only 35 known Vermeers in existence; they are exceedingly rare. The museum estimates that Rembrandt's seascape and the Vermeer are alone worth $500 million.
At 2:45 am, the thieves left the museum and disappeared into the night. They were never heard from again. The notorious art heist remains unsolved.
Today, empty frames hang as placeholders in the museum. The museum has offered and extended a reward of $10 million for information leading to the recovery of the stolen art work.
The FBI thoroughly investigated the case, but came up empty. The FBI believes the two men suspected of
pulling off the heist were killed soon after the theft and that no one knows where they stashed the artwork. That’s the most likely reason why the reward hasn’t produced a break in the case. There's also been speculation that the theft was the work of a mobster or a mafia job, but the museum doesn't agree. There's no shortage of rumors.
They weren't expert thieves, that's for sure. The small time burglars left behind The Rape of Europa and a nearby Michelangelo.
In an effort to keep the heist in the public eye, the museum released a book called Stolen, about the robbery. There is also a 10 part podcast called "Last Seen" about the stolen works.
Anthony Amore, the museum’s director of security, who works on the "strange" case every day and is an expert in the recovery of stolen art, is in “almost constant contact” with FBI investigators. Tipsters still call "all the time," with leads ranging from the "vaguely interesting to the downright bizarre." Amore calls the unsolved case "the Holy Grail in the art world," but seems to think that he is “making the haystack smaller.”
Whether the paintings will ever be recovered is a controversial topic. Some experts say they are "long gone." Others are certain they still exist. Typically, the thieves only try to sell the art on the black market.
In the meantime, there is a new reality app called "Hacking the Heist" that allows you to view the paintings while you're at the museum. The app is simple:
"Just hold up your smartphone camera to the empty frames that still hang on the Gardner walls, and suddenly the paintings will appear, back where they belong at long last."
For now, the Gardner Museum's empty frames are a silent and poignant reminder of the loss of these paintings to the art loving public. And it was the public that Gardner, through her magnificent bequest, was trying to serve in the first place.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Must See Isabella Stewart Garner Museum in Boston:
Address: 25 Evans Way, Boston MA
Hours: 11:00 am to 5:00 pm daily, except Tuesday
Entry Fee: $15 for adults, Seniors $12, Students with ID $5, Under 18 free
Fun Fact: If your name is Isabella, show ID and get in free of charge
Tel: (617) 566-1401
Parking: There are a limited number of free and metered spots and the museum offers discounted parking at the next door Simmons School of Management garage
Metro stops: Museum of Fine Arts stop on the Green E train or the Ruggles stop on the Orange Line
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