The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is at once an intimate collection of fine and decorative art and a vibrant, innovative venue for contemporary artists, musicians and scholars. Housed in a stunning 15th-century Venetian-style palace with three stories of galleries surrounding a sun- and flower-filled courtyard, the museum provides an unusual backdrop for the viewing of art. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's preeminent collection contains more than 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts, rare books and decorative arts. The galleries house works by some of the most recognized artists in the world, including Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler and Sargent. The spirit of the architecture, the personal character of the arrangements and the artistic display of the enchanting courtyard in full bloom all create an atmosphere that distinguishes the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as an intimate and culturally-rich treasure.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened to the public on the evening of January 1st, 1903, with a musical and visual arts celebration. Following an opening concert of Bach, Mozart, Chausson and Schumann performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, mirrored doors were rolled back to reveal the spectacular interior courtyard, brimming with flowers and dramatically lit with Japanese lanterns. Surrounding the courtyard, galleries displayed art in a highly intimate and personal setting. The evening was a dazzling celebration of music, art, history, innovation and beauty. In the words of William James, "The aesthetic perfection of all things seemed to have a peculiar effect on the company…It was a very extraordinary and wonderful moral influence…Quite in the line of a Gospel miracle!"
Fenway Court, as the museum was called at its inception, is the only private art collection in which the building, collection and installations are the creation of one individual. Isabella Stewart Gardner's vision that the museum remain as she arranged it "for the education and enrichment of the public forever" is reflected in every aspect of the museum. The museum's seal, designed by Isabella Gardner and Boston artist and designer Sarah Wyman Whitman, bears a phoenix (a symbol of immortality) above the phrase C'est mon plaisir ("It is my pleasure").
Today, as in Isabella Stewart Gardner's lifetime, the museum bustles with artistic activity and presents ongoing programs in celebration of historic art, contemporary art, music, education and horticulture.
The Making of the Museum
Isabella Stewart Gardner amassed the bulk of her collection in a remarkably short period of time. Like many wealthy Americans, the Gardners bought paintings and objects to decorate their home. In the 1880s, Isabella Stewart Gardner attended lectures on art history and readings of Dante given by Charles Eliot Norton at Harvard College. This sparked a passion for Dante, and Isabella Gardner began to buy rare editions by the writer. She became a serious collector of Dutch and Italian pictures in the 1890s. Beginning in 1894, Bernard Berenson, then a young art historian, started to recommend Italian paintings for acquisition. He was just as new at this as Gardner was, but within two years he had guided her towards a collection that included Botticelli's Lucretia, Titian's Europa, Vermeer's The Concert, and Rembrandt's Self-Portrait. Berenson acted as a conduit for paintings that Colnaghi, a London dealer, had for sale; however, Isabella Gardner made her own decisions about what to buy. In 1896, Berenson facilitated the purchase of Titian's Europa, still heralded as the "most important work of art in Boston," by Boston-area museum directors (The Boston Globe, July 27, 2002).
The Gardners' travels through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe fostered an appreciation for different cultures. In 1867, the Gardners traveled to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna, and Paris, and crossed Norway to see the midnight sun. During 1882 and 1883, they traveled around the world, visiting Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia (where they rode on an oxcart through the jungles to see the ruins of Angkor Wat), Indonesia, India, Egypt, and Palestine.
By 1896, Isabella and Jack Gardner recognized that their house on Beacon Street in Boston's Back Bay, although enlarged once, was not large enough for the new museum they were conceiving. At first, they asked an architect to design a completely new museum to be built on the same site. Although Jack Gardner died as these plans were being readied, Isabella Gardner realized their ambitions. Setting her sights on the Fenway, a formerly marshy area that had recently been filled, in 1898 she purchased a plot of land on which to build her museum. Architect Willard T. Sears drew up plans and construction of Fenway Court began in June of 1899. Isabella Gardner attended the driving of the first pile and visited the construction site regularly, carefully supervising every detail of the building. She climbed ladders to show painters the effect she sought for the interior courtyard and determined the placement of each architectural element. The building was complete by November 1901, and Isabella Stewart Gardner spent the following year carefully installing her collection. Gardner herself lived in an apartment on the fourth floor.
On January 1, 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner opened her museum for the first time, inviting friends to attend an evening reception and performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On February 23rd, Gardner opened the museum to the public. She ensured that her museum was the setting for artists, musicians and thinkers. John Singer Sargent used the Gothic Room as a studio. The famed operatic soprano Nellie Melba sang within the museum; Ruth St. Denis, an innovative modern choreographer, danced there as well. The Japanese art historian and critic Okakura Kakuzo (author of The Book of Tea) became especially close to Gardner and shared his knowledge about Asian spirituality, by for example, arranging an exhibition devoted to Japanese culture and performing the tea ceremony at the museum.
An Intimate Display
Isabella Stewart Gardner disliked the cold, mausoleum-like spaces of most American museums of the period. As a result, she designed Fenway Court around a central courtyard filled with flowers. Light enters the galleries from the courtyard and from exterior windows, creating an atmospheric setting for works of art. Love of art, not knowledge about the history of art, was her aim. Her friends noted that the entire museum was a work of art in itself. Individual objects became part of a rich, complex and intensely personal setting.
The museum also provides personal glimpses into the sensibilities and personality of Isabella Stewart Gardner, poignant testaments to her personal tragedies and triumphs. The loss of her only child at the age of two is suggested in the Spanish Chapel, opposite John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo (1882), a painting that celebrates the excitement of life. Titian's Europa (1561-1562) hangs above a piece of pale green silk, which had been cut from one of Isabella Stewart Gardner's gowns designed by Charles Frederic Worth. Throughout the collection, similar stories, intimate portrayals, and discoveries abound.
Ten portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself are interspersed throughout the collection, including John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888), Anders Zorn's Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894), and James McNeill Whistler's The Little Note in Yellow and Gold (1886). The sense of vitality and artistic flair that she found in Venice - and by which she lived her life - is eloquently captured in Zorn's Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894. Painted in the Palazzo Barbaro, the portrait captures the moment when Isabella Stewart Gardner, watching fireworks from a balcony, stood in the doorway, arms outstretched and invited her guests to join her to watch the display. Today, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's historic collection remains as Gardner created it, a collection of intimate effect and ongoing inspiration for visual, musical and horticultural innovation and scholarly thinking.
Building on a Legacy
In 1999, the museum embarked upon a strategic planning process to look at the future of the museum. This process yielded important studies and discussions regarding the preservation of the historic building and its collection. The museum made the bold decision to build an addition to the historic palace in order to relieve pressure on the historic spaces. The new wing designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano opened in January 2012. Learn more about the building project here.