Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
|Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum|
|Public transit access||Museum of Fine Arts|
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
|Architect:||Willard T. Sears|
|Added to NRHP:||January 27, 1983|
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or Fenway Court, as the museum was known during Isabella Stewart Gardner's lifetime, is a museum in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, located within walking distance of the Museum of Fine Arts and near the Back Bay Fens. The museum houses an art collection of world importance, including significant examples of European, Asian, and American art, from paintings and sculpture to tapestries and decorative arts. In 1990, thirteen of the museum's paintings were stolen; the high-profile crime remains unsolved and the artwork's location is still unknown.
Today, the museum hosts exhibitions of historic and contemporary art, as well as concerts, lectures, family and community programs, and changing courtyard displays. In honor of Isabella Stewart Gardner, admission to the museum is free to anyone named Isabella.
The museum was established in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924), an American art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. It is housed in a building designed to emulate a 15th-century Venetian palace, drawing particular inspiration from the Venetian Palazzo Barbaro.
Gardner began collecting seriously after she received a large inheritance from her father in 1891. Her purchase of Vermeer's The Concert at auction in Paris in 1892 was her first major acquisition. In 1894, Bernard Berenson offered his services in helping her acquire a Botticelli. Berenson helped acquire nearly 70 works of art for her collection.
After her husband John L. Gardner's death in 1898, Isabella Gardner realized their shared dream of building a museum for their treasures. She purchased land for the museum in the marshy Fenway area of Boston, and hired architect Willard T. Sears to build a museum modeled on the Renaissance palaces of Venice. Gardner was deeply involved in every aspect of the design, though, leading Sears to quip that he was merely the structural engineer making Gardner's design possible. After the construction of the building was complete, Gardner spent a full year carefully installing her collection in a way that evokes intimate responses to the art, mixing paintings, furniture, textiles and objects from different cultures and periods among well-known European paintings and sculpture.
The museum opened on January 1, 1903 with a grand celebration featuring a performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a menu that included champagne and doughnuts.
During Gardner's lifetime, she welcomed artists, performers, and scholars to Fenway Court to draw inspiration from the rich collection and dazzling Venetian setting, including John Singer Sargent, Charles Martin Loeffler, and Ruth St. Denis, among others. Today, the museum's vibrant contemporary Artist-in-Residence program, courtyard garden displays, concerts, and innovative education programs continue Isabella Gardner's legacy.
When Isabella Stewart Gardner died in 1924, her will created an endowment of $1 million and outlined stipulations for the support of the museum, including the charge that her collection be permanently exhibited "for the education and enjoyment of the public forever" according to her aesthetic vision and intent. Gardner stipulated that if her wishes for the museum were not honored, the property and collection were to be sold and the money given to Harvard University.
The museum's current director is Anne Hawley.
Built to evoke a 15th-century Venetian palace, the museum itself provides an atmospheric setting for Isabella Stewart Gardner's inventive creation. Gardner hired Willard T. Sears to design the building near the marshy Back Bay Fens to house her growing art collection. Inside the museum, three floors of galleries surround a garden courtyard blooming with life in all seasons.
It is a common misconception that the building was brought to America from Venice and reconstructed. It was built from the ground up in Boston out of new materials, incorporating numerous architectural fragments from European Gothic and Renaissance structures.
Antique elements are worked into the design of the turn-of-the-century building. Special tiles were custom designed for the floors, modern concrete was used for some of the structural elements, and antique capitals sit atop modern columns. The interior garden courtyard is covered by a glass roof, with steel support structure original to the building.
The Gardner Museum is much admired for the intimate atmosphere in which its works of art are displayed and for its flower-filled courtyard. Most of the art pieces are unlabeled, and the generally dim lighting is more akin to a private house than a modern art museum.
Isabella Stewart Gardner collected and carefully displayed a collection of more than 2,500 objects—paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, architectural elements, drawings, silver, ceramics, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, photographs and letters—from ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, Asia, the Islamic world, and 19th-century France and America. Among the artists represented in the galleries are Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler and Sargent. The first Matisse to enter an American collection is housed in the Yellow Room.
Well-known artworks in the museum's collection include Titian's The Rape of Europa, John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo and Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Fra Angelico's Death and Assumption of the Virgin, Rembrandt's Self-Portrait, Aged 23, Cellini's Bindo Altoviti, and Piero della Francesca's Hercules.
Extension and preservation project 
In 2002, after a two-year master planning process, the museum's board of trustees determined that a new wing was necessary to preserve the historic building and to provide improved spaces for programs that continue Isabella Gardner's legacy. In 2004, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano and the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Genoa, Italy) were selected to design the new wing. The design for the new wing is conceived as a respectful complement to the historic Museum building in scale, form, and materials.
In March 2009, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts approved the museum's plans, confirming that the project is consistent with the primary purpose of Isabella Stewart Gardner's will and is in the public interest. The project also received approval from all relevant city and state preservation and development review agencies.
The new expansion includes spaces for visitor services, concerts, special exhibitions, and education and landscape programs, furthering Isabella Gardner's legacy in art, music, and horticulture while reducing 21st-century strain on the collection and galleries. The completion date was 2012, and the project cost $118 million.
Art theft of 1990 
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990—as the city was preoccupied with Saint Patrick's Day celebrations—a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers gained entry to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole thirteen works of art.
At 1:24 a.m., two men wearing police uniforms walked up to a side entrance of the Museum. One of the men pressed the buzzer near the door and ordered "Police! Let us in. We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard." They were buzzed into the building without question. There were two security guards working inside of the 4-story building at the time; one was sitting behind the main security desk, the other guard was elsewhere. When the intruders arrived at the main security desk, one of them told the guard "You look familiar...I think we have a default warrant out for you." The guard was tricked into stepping out from behind his desk, where he had access to the only alarm button in the museum to alert the police. He was ordered to stand facing a wall and was handcuffed. The second security guard arrived minutes later and was also put in handcuffs. He asked the intruders "Why are you arresting me?" "You're not being arrested," was the reply. "This is a robbery. Don't give us any problems and you won't get hurt." The thieves wrapped duct tape around the guards' hands, feet, and heads, leaving nose holes for breathing, took them to the museum's basement, and handcuffed them to pipes.
The thieves then went upstairs to the Dutch Room. As one of them approached a Rembrandt painting, an alarm sounded, which they immediately smashed. They pulled Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (1629) off the wall and tried to take the wooden panel out of the heavy frame. Unsuccessful at that attempt, they left it on the floor. Next they cut Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) out of the frame as well as A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) (the museum says this is a Rembrandt, but some scholars, including the Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam, say it is not). They removed Vermeer's The Concert (1658–60) from its frame and Govaert Flinck's Landscape with an Obelisk (1638) (which at one time was attributed to Rembrandt). They took a Rembrandt etching and a Chinese bronze beaker from the Shang Dynasty (1200–1100 BC).
Elsewhere in the museum, not far from a portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, they removed five Degas drawings, a Manet oil, Chez Tortoni (1878–80), and a finial in the form of an eagle. To get to the finial, they passed by two Raphaels and a Botticelli.
The thieves had to make two trips to their car with the artwork. The theft lasted 81 minutes. The guards remained tied and handcuffed until the police arrived at 8:15 a.m. later that morning.
The stolen artworks include:
- The Concert by Vermeer (one of only 34 known works by Vermeer in the world)
- A Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt
- The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (the artist's only known seascape)
- Self-Portrait by Rembrandt (postage-stamp-sized)
- Landscape with Obelisk by Govaert Flinck (formerly attributed to Rembrandt)
- Chez Tortoni by Manet
- Five drawings by Degas:
- La Sortie de Pesage
- Cortege aux Environs de Florence
- Program for an artistic soiree 1 & 2
- Three Mounted Jockeys
- An ancient Chinese Ku from the Shang Dynasty
- A finial in the shape of an eagle from a Napoleonic flag
All together, the stolen pieces are estimated to be a loss of $500 million, making the robbery the largest private property theft ever. Several empty frames hang in the Dutch Room gallery, both in homage to the missing works and as placeholders for when they are returned. The stolen artworks have not yet been returned to the museum and the selection of works puzzles the experts, specifically since more valuable artworks were available.
The museum offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the recovery of the stolen artwork, which remains open two decades later. The FBI followed several leads, but none of them produced any results. The case was muddled up by the monetary reward and corruption in the Boston FBI office, which would be uncovered in the late 1990s (see John Connolly).
In March 2013, the FBI said it believed it knows the identity of the thieves. They believe that the theft was carried out by a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England, and that the stolen paintings were moved by a criminal organization through Connecticut and the Philadelphia area in the years following the theft. The FBI believes some of the art may have been sold in Philadelphia in the early 2000s.
In popular culture 
The theft was referenced in The Simpsons episode "American History X-cellent", in which one of the stolen works, The Concert by Vermeer, is found in the collection of Mr. Burns. Similarly, in the The Venture Bros. episode "Victor. Echo. November.", a supervillain attempts to sell The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which he apparently possesses, to a collector for ten million dollars.
The theft is part of the plot of The Art Forger, a 2012 novel by Barbara A. Shapiro. The Degas painting which is featured in the novel was not among those stolen and may not exist.
Current programs 
The Gardner Museum regularly produces scholarly exhibitions—along with lectures, family programs, and symposia—that provide insights into the historic collection. Through the Gardner's Artist-in-Residence program, artists in many disciplines are invited to live at and draw inspiration from the museum. The museum often hosts exhibitions of contemporary art, performances, and programs by Artists-in-Residence.
The Gardner's concert series welcomes musicians and emerging artists to perform classical masterpieces, new music, and jazz on Sunday afternoons and select Thursday evenings. The musical program is also available through concert videos, audio recordings, and a free classical music podcast.
Reflecting Isabella Gardner's passion for horticulture and garden design, the Gardner's interior courtyard is an astonishing work of art, combining ever-changing horticultural displays with sculpture and architectural elements. The unique interplay between the courtyard and the museum galleries offers visitors a fresh view of the courtyard from almost every room, inviting connections between art and landscape. Programs like the Landscape Visions lecture series and special Ask the Gardener hours further engage visitors with the art of landscape.
In honor of its founder, the museum offers free admission and occasional special events for anyone named Isabella. In addition, visitors receive free admission to the museum on their birthday.
See also 
- "National Register of Historical Places: Massachusetts (MA), Suffolk County". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 11, 2007.
- "ISGM Exhibitions: The Making of the Museum—Construction". Gardner Museum. Retrieved March 26, 2010.
- "Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Review". IgoUgo. Retrieved June 20, 2012.
- Edgers, Geoff (November 29, 2004). "Gardner museum to grow". The Boston Globe. Retrieved January 21, 2010.
- Edgers, Geoff (January 20, 2010). "Gardner's $118m expansion plan set". The Boston Globe. Retrieved March 26, 2010.
- Esterow, Milton (May 2009). "Inside the Gardner Case". ArtNews.
- "Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved February 27, 2013.
- Menconi, David (March–April 2012). "Hot Canvases: A new book shatters myths about art theft". Harvard Magazine.
- McShane, Thomas & Matera, Dary (2006). "18. No Boston Tea Party at Isabella's". Stolen Masterpiece Tracker. Barricade Books. ISBN 978-1-56980-314-1.
- "FBI Says It Has Clues in '90 Boston Art Heist". The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2013.
- Comcowich, Greg (March 18, 2013). "FBI Provides New Information Regarding the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Art Heist: Information Sought from Those in Philadelphia and Connecticut Who May Have Knowledge of the Art's Location" (Press release). Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Division.
- Dreyfus, Rebecca (April 13, 2006). "Stolen: Is it still a masterpiece if no one can find it?". Stolen pressbook. International Film Circuit. Retrieved June 24, 2010.
- "Isabellas Free...Forever!". Gardner Museum. January 1, 1903. Retrieved October 16, 2011.
- "Offers and Discounts". Gardner Museum. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
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