In 1989, when Isabella Stewart Gardner began planning her museum, she could not have envisioned it would become the site of the world’s greatest art heist, home to North America’s most crucial Renaissance painting, and a cultural landmark in contemporary Boston. Located right across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (a.k.a the Gardner) houses an impressive collection of paintings, sculpture, architecture, tapestry, and decorative art. The Gardner is not a typical museum with big, open exhibition spaces and a continually rotating collection; instead, it must follow peculiar and specific guidelines set by Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will. A set of guidelines stipulating no part of her museum, including the building itself, may be altered.
What results is a unique museum experience, one devoid of museum norms. The original building, which has since been expanded upon, features a central courtyard, full of lush greenery bathed in light. The glass ceiling, four stories above, brings sunlight to most of the upper levels as well. Museum visitors wander through the courtyard and up the stairs, walking through intricately decorated rooms whose walls hold the Gardners’ favourite paintings. During her lifetime, Isabella lived on the fourth floor of the museum and used much of the museum as her personal study and parlour rooms. As such, most of the art is arranged to adapt into a living space, and are consequently devoid of the plaques and lighting of a typical museum.
Walking through the museum’s entirety is fascinating and captivating, with each ascending level giving hints about Isabella’s life and everyday habits. Since modern curators can make very few alterations to the collection, the Gardner Museum finds ways to introduce artistic innovation into the older interior. The courtyard has housed many concerts and performance art, and a revived interest in horticulture flourishes throughout.
After Isabella’s marriage to Jack Gardner in 1860, the wealthy New York couple travelled the world. It was in Venice that Isabella found inspiration for her own museum in Boston, and she noted great admiration for the Palazzo Barbaro. Isabella often attended the intellectual gatherings of Charles Eliot Norton, the first professor of art history at Harvard University. At one of these gatherings, she met Bernard Berenson, a Harvard student who eventually became her chief art consultant.
After her husband died in 1898, Isabella began dedicating her life to patronage and curation of the arts. She quickly acquired valuable paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts, rare books, and decorative arts. The museum itself became a combination of her many interests, evident even in the architecture, which features frames imported from Venice, Florence, and Rome.
Isabella died in 1924, leaving behind an endowment for the museum’s operation, but declaring in her will that no part of her museum galleries may be altered, and no pieces of art may be acquired or sold.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum gained international attention when, on March 18, 1990, it was robbed. The thieves posed as policemen and were able to subdue the guards in the early hours before museum staff arrived. Thirteen paintings disappeared off Isabella’s walls, totalling upwards of $500 million, the most significant property theft in the world.
Since the theft, very little progress has been made in the case. No arrests have been made, but authorities still have no trail of the stolen works to this day. With a $10 million reward for information leading to the artworks’ recovery, these stolen pieces have the largest bounty ever offered by a private institution. Instead of replacing the works in her collection, empty frames hang where the stolen artwork once did, a burning reminder of what was lost.
The museum’s most prized possession, The Rape of Europa, is considered the most essential Renaissance painting in the United States. Isabella acquired the painting with the help of Berenson and spent a record-breaking £20,000 on the work. The entire room gravitates towards the image, and the fabric surrounding it on the walls came from one of Isabella’s silk gowns. Although the museum remains less crowded than its neighbour the MFA, this painting draws a crowd and serves as a cultural beacon for those in the Boston area.