The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

A slice of La Boheme in Boston. And a really, really pretty courtyard.

Isabella Stewart Gardner designed every inch of the museum herself. In her will, she stipulated that every piece of furniture, every sculpture, and every painting must remain exactly as she placed it. Should anything be moved or removed, the collection will boxed up, shipped to Paris and sold to the highest bidder. The proceeds will then be donated to Harvard University. So, understandably, nothing has ever been changed.

As a member of Boston High Society in the 1800s, Gardner’s central objective in life would have been to marry well. And then to secure lots of little heirs to carry on their father’s name. She accomplished both. However, Isabella was not the type to rest on the laurels of society’s expectations. She and her husband set about collecting one of America’s finest art collections and building a public museum to house it.

Isabelle Stewart Gardner ran in the circles of the biggest artistic names of the 19th century. She was a force in the art world herself. In Venice she became a close friend and patron to American icons, John Signer Sargent and James Whistler. During her travels across Europe and the Middle East she acquired paintings by Titian, Botticelli, Raphael and Velazquez.

El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent
El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Sargent was a close friend of Gardner.

The museum, inspired by Plazzo Barbaro in Venice, is a renaissance palace just down the street from Harvard medical school and Fenway park. The gossip columns called it a folly. But Gardner, who routinely defied conventions of conservative Boston, probably took this as a compliment.

“Mrs. Jack Gardner is one of the seven wonders of Boston. There is nobody like her in any city in this country. She is a millionaire Bohemienne. She is the leader of the smart set, but often leads where no one dare follow” — A Boston reporter

Like the woman who built it, the museum has had its share of notoriety. Most famously it was victim of one of the largest, unsolved art heists in history. In 1990, two burglars dressed up as cops, tied up the museum security guards and made off with 13 paintings from the museum, valued at around $500 Million. The stolen paintings include masterpieces such as Vermeer’s The Concert — worth a cool $200 Million alone — as well as Rembrandt’s only known seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, some Degas, a Manet and a Flinck. Despite years of investigations and a $10 Million reward, none of the paintings have been recovered.

Empty Frame from Rembrandt's the Strom on the Sea of Gaillee
The Gardner has kept up all the frames from the stolen paintings, include this one which used to hold Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Gaillee

Between the woman, the history, and the heist the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum feels truly unique. There’s no cold, untouchable marble here, instead the building oozes personality and character. This kind of warmth not always present at evergreen art institutions, and is perhaps Gardner’s greatest achievement.

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