Secrets and Highlights of the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum

(The Courtyard, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)Janet Ramin - What do you get when you mix a Venetian palace, priceless artwork, a female patron, and a daring art robbery?  If you answered the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, you’re only partially right, but if you came up with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, then you’ve hit bull’s-eye! These ingredients make for a thrilling history, maybe even for a movie. The Gardner Museum is back in the news with a reopening this past January after going through renovations and the addition of a new wing by Italian architect Renzo Piano - see below. The original building is seen at the right corner. 

(New Wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)Modeled after a 15th-century Venetian palazzo, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has always been considered a jewel among small museums, mainly for its masterpiece collection but also because of its beautiful, intimate and atmospheric space. It was also infamous for a dramatic art heist, still unsolved to this day. If you’re hunting for a Degas or a Vermeer painting, you may still uncover a hidden treasure out there!

(postcard of original Gardner Palazzo)The Gardner Museum is also one of the very few museums started by a woman: philanthropist and art patron named Isabella Stewart Gardner, also popularly known as Mrs. Jack (after her husband). At first, Isabella lived the life of a typical society matron – attending parties and raising a family. But after the death of her only son, she suffered illness and depression. To lift her spirits, her husband took her to visit the landmarks of Europe. Isabella began bringing back many souvenirs, including important artwork. Her favorite destination was Venice, shaping her decision to model the museum after a Venetian palace. Her close friends included artists John Singer Sargent and James Whistler and author Henry James

(Isabella Stewart Gardner, painted by Anders Zorn)The next phase of her life began to be more productive. She pursued adventure, entertained artists and fringe groups and promoted the arts, music, and sports in Boston. Her first home soon overflowed with artwork so she commissioned architect Willard T. Sears to build her dream house. She took charge of the building project and helped design many of the Venetian architectural elements. When building was finished in 1901, Isabella lived in Fenway Court as it was first called. Isabella eventually opened her home to the public, turning it into a museum in 1903.

Gardner willed her home to the city of Boston upon her death, with the stipulation that nothing be changed or moved in the house. Any changes would result in its sale and the proceeds would go to Harvard University. After much debate and planning, the Museum’s board finally embarked on a plan to extend the Museum by adding a new wing to house special events and exhibitions, a conservation lab, a store and a cafe. Below is the living room area and the Calderwood concert hall located in the new wing. Visitors to the museum will now enter the Renzo Piano wing and walk through the Evans Way Park lobby, which connects to the original palazzo building.

("The Living Room", photography by Nic Lehoux)(Calderwood Concert Hall, photography by Nic Lehoux)As you walk through the museum, you can see where the original stolen paintings were once hung – the empty frames still hang on the walls. Back in 1990, two thieves, dressed as Boston cops, entered the museum, claiming a disturbance on the property was called in to the precinct. The thieves overpowered the two security guards and walked off with 13 works of art, including Vermeer’s The Concert, 5 Degas paintings, and 3 Rembrandts. Despite investigations by the police, the FBI, and art detectives, and a reward prize of $5 million, the perpetrators were never found and neither were the artwork. The secret still remains. 

(The Concert by Vermeer, courtesy of the Gardner Museum)


This article was reprinted by permission of the Sheffield School, New York, NY. Sheffield began as an Interior Design school in 1985, and then expanded our course offerings to train people in other design-related fields, including Feng ShuiWedding and Event Planning, and Jewelry Design. With thousands of active students and more than 50,000 graduates, Sheffield has trained more design professionals than any school in the world.