Sunday, January 4, 2009


A portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, by John Singer Sargent, from 1887

 Another portrait of Isabella by Anders Zorn done in 1894

The courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Venetian-style exterior of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Do you have a favorite museum?  I have been to many wonderful ones and it's impossible for me to choose just one.  A museum that truly stands out in my mind is one that I had never heard of before until a trip to Boston a few years ago.  Before my trip, a friend who had lived there told me that if I did no other sight-seeing, that I must go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  That's quite an endorsement, given all that there is to see in Boston.  This particular friend knows me well, so I decided to take her advice (Luckily, I had plenty of time to see much more of Boston as well!)
I had never heard of Isabella Stewart Gardner before (surprising, given that art history degree!) and I didn't have time to research the place before I got there.  I'm glad I didn't because what I found surprised me and simply took my breath away.  
Isabella lived from 1840-1924 in Boston.  She was an eccentric and somewhat scandalous socialite who had a passion for art.  She and her husband travelled the world buying masses of art along the way.  They bought paintings, statues, carvings, jewelry, tapestries, furniture, books and architectural elements among many other things.  They bought works from unknown artists as well as pieces by the old masters such as Botticelli, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Raphael and contemporaries like John Singer Sargent, Degas, Matisse and Whistler.
When her husband died in 1898 Isabella decided to build a museum in the Fenway area of Boston.  She directed that the museum be built as a palace to house all of her fabulous treasures and as a residence for her until her death.  The museum opened in 1903.  Upon her death in 1924 she endowed the museum with 1 million dollars for it's maintenance, stipulating that everything should be left in it's place and never be rearranged.  She spent a great deal of time assembling the collection and arranging it's placement in the house and I think she felt she had made perfection.  Perhaps a bit controlling, but also maybe a way to be remembered long after she passed away.
Nothing in the museum was moved, per Isabella's instruction until 1990.  One morning in March of that year, thieves dressed as Boston police, broke into the museum and stole 12 works of art worth 500 million dollars.  Three Rembrandt's, paintings by Degas, Vermeer, Manet and others were stolen.  The perpetrators were never caught, though an FBI investigation is ongoing.  The theft remains the largest art heist in history.  Such a shame, but the missing paintings in no way effect the impact that the museum has on visitors.  The frames in which the  paintings had been hung remain empty on the wall in their spots in an attempt to honor Isabella's wishes for things to remain unchanged.  It's as if the frames are waiting patiently to be reunited with their paintings.  Despite Isabella's mandate that things should not be moved, the museum manages to not be a stagnant place.  In fact a separate building is being constructed to house pieces purchased since Isabella's death.  I doubt she'd mind, as long as her original ideal remains unaltered.
An afternoon here feels more like a ramble through a wealthy art collector's home than a day in a museum.  There is a performance hall where concerts are given on some evenings and on Sundays and a lovely little cafe to have a quiet lunch in.  The crowning glory of the museum has to be the courtyard.  The building has a glass roof under which is the most beautiful interior garden that I have ever seen.  There are flowers blooming in every season and special exhibits such as a display of 20 foot hanging nasturtiums every April. 
If you get a chance to visit this special place, I hope that you will.  I promise that you won't regret it.
If you want to learn more about this remarkable woman and her palace, check out an excellent book called: The Memory Palace by Patricia Vigderman or go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website.

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