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Amazing Space: Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


If there's one thing clear about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, it's that it is not named for a donor who gave the money for a 15th-century Venetian palazzo in Boston and for art to fill it.

Portraits by John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn

It's named for a detail-obsessed art-loving intentionally-scandalous and fabulously rich Boston woman who dictated and supervised every detail of the building and the placement of her collection—and left a will that forbids any of the artworks to be moved from where she left them.

Empty_Frames_at_Isabella_Stewart_Gardner_MuseumOf course, that provision of her will was famously ignored in 1990 when thieves, possibly with inside help, took thirteen of the best in a still-unsolved mystery. Following the spirit of her instructions, the empty frames still hold their places on the wall.


Isabella Gardner inherited from a rich father and married another fortune. Between the two, and an apparently fairly tolerant if less flamboyant husband, she managed to escape the kind of sedate life expected of the Boston wealthy of her time. A palazzo in Venice. Deep friendships—sometimes more—with artists and writers including Sargent, Zorn, Whistler, Henry James. Hiring boxing champions to pose in little clothing for her friends to admire. Showing up at a 1912 Philharmonic concert in a Red Sox headband.


As the Gardners' collection grew, they began planning a museum; enlarging their mansion hadn't created enough space. After her husband, Jack Gardner died in 1896, she began working seriously on the museum project, buying land in the marshy Fenway area, near the Museum of Fine Arts, and hired Willard Sears, a noted architect, to build the Venetian-style museum. Sears told friends that in fact he was merely the structural engineer making her design possible to build.

01-P108008506-P1080087The building surrounds a courtyard, the only part of the musem's display that is allowed to change. It's visible from every gallery in the building.


But, the courtyard is only part of the 'amazing space' of Mrs. Gardner's museum. There are small rooms (small enough to need crowd control) and large rooms, and the large rooms are very large indeed, as seen below and in the title picture. Each room, by the way, has a series of laminated cards, one for each wall, identifying every work—I wish more museums did that!


But, although she didn't trust anyone else to move things after her death, she did quite a bit of re-arranging in her lifetime. In the years between the museum's opening in 1903 and her death in 1924, she re-purposed rooms, moved walls and created new spaces. One of the most notable shifts: she split the music room to create a special space for El Jaleo (below) by John Singer Sargent. 


And El Jaleo is something of a Gardner story, too. Sargent showed the painting of Spanish, possibly Gypsy, dancers in 1882; it was bought by a Boston collector who was a cousin of Jack Gardner. Gardner created the space, waited to show it to the cousin, and convince him to lend it to her. With a little persuasion, he ended up giving it to her.


The galleries along the courtyard display even more of the gallery's collections. There are sections for Asian as well as European art, but the boundaries are never clear in a collection and space like this.


We've been to the Gardner a few times before, including once before the theft. Sadly, one of the paintings taken was the one that impressed us most: Rembrandt's painting of the Storm in the Sea of Galilee.

We went this time with my sister, who had not been before; we thought of it as an appetizer before our planned visit to several exhibitions around the corner at MFA. 


But the visit lasted from opening to late lunch time, with more to see and no time for it, nor for time in the Garden. Definitely in the plan for another visit! If you decide to go, by the way, and it's your birthday or your name is Isabella, admission is free. Discounts available for members of the MFA, Massachusetts teachers, and anyone wearing Red Sox regalia. Really.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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