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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Gardner Museum in 2012,
original building at right
Established 1903
Location Boston, Massachusetts
Type Art museum
Founder Isabella Stewart Gardner
Director Anne Hawley
Public transit access Museum of Fine Arts Handicapped/disabled access


Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Gardner Museum viewed from the Fenway (new wing is not visible at rear)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is located in Massachusetts
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Location Boston, Massachusetts
Built 1896–1903
Architect Willard T. Sears[1]
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference # 83000603[1]
Added to NRHP January 27, 1983

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) 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 (although the Museum of Fine Arts's Huntington Avenue location was constructed after Fenway Court) 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 works 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 accordance with the will of Isabella Stewart Gardner, admittance is discounted to those wearing Boston Red Sox memorabilia, and is free to anyone named Isabella.


  • History 1
  • Design 2
  • Collection 3
  • Extension and preservation project 4
  • Art theft of 1990 5
  • Current programs 6
  • Recent exhibitions 7
    • Exhibitions 7.1
    • Contemporary art exhibitions 7.2
  • Gallery 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


The museum was incorporated in 1900 and opened 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. With his help, Gardner became the first American to own a painting by the Renaissance master. Berenson helped acquire nearly 70 works of art for her collection.

The Rape of Europa (1562) by Titian is one of the most famous works in the museum.

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 gallery installations were very different than they appear today. The Room of Early Italian Paintings, for example, served as her Chinese Room until about 1914.

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. Gardner also occasionally hosted artists' exhibitions within Fenway Court, including one of Anna Coleman Ladd. Today, the museum's 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.

Gardner appointed her secretary and the former librarian of the Anne Hawley, though she has announced plans to step down effective at the end of 2015.[2]


Side view of original building shows glass skylights which illuminate the central atrium

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.[3] 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.[4] 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 low lighting is more akin to a private house than a modern art museum.


Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Lucretia (1496–1504)

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.

The archives hold more than 7,000 letters from 1,000 correspondents, including Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot, Sarah Bernhardt, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, in addition to travel albums, dealer receipts, and guest books.

The galleries also contain Isabella Stewart Gardner's little-known but extensive book collection that includes early-print editions and manuscripts of Dante, works by miniaturist Jean Bourdichon, incunables, and illuminated manuscripts.

Extension and preservation project

View of original building from inside the new wing. A glassed-in passageway connecting the buildings is visible at lower center of photo.

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,[5] and the project cost $118 million.[6]

Art theft of 1990

Announcement on stolen masterpieces from the museum.

In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990—when the city was preoccupied with Saint Patrick's Day celebrations—a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers gained entry to the museum and stole thirteen works of art.

The total worth of the stolen pieces has been estimated at $500 million, making the robbery the greatest single property theft in US history.[7] Several empty frames hang in the Dutch Room gallery as placeholders for the missing works, in hopeful expectation of their return. The selection of stolen works puzzled experts, as more valuable artworks were present in the museum.[8]

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.

The Gardner offers a variety of admission discounts. Because Isabella Gardner was a Red Sox fan, visitors wearing Red Sox paraphernalia receive an admission discount. Also 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.[9]

Recent exhibitions


Following is a list of the Gardner's exhibitions since 2002.[10]

Exhibition Title Date
Cosme Tura: Painting and Design in Renaissance Ferrara January 30 – May 12, 2002
Making of the Museum: Isabella Stewart Gardner as Collector, Architect, and Designer April 23 – August 24, 2003
Raphael, Cellini and a Renaissance Banker: The Patronage of Bindo Altoviti October 8, 2003 – January 11, 2004
Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle April 21 – August 15, 2004
Off the Wall: New Perspectives on Early Italian Art at the Gardner Museum October 6, 2004 – January 9, 2005
Gentile Bellini and the East December 14, 2005 – March 26, 2006
A Bronze Menagerie: Mat Weights of Early China October 5, 2006 – January 14, 2007
Luxury for Export: Artistic Exchange between India and Portugal around 1600 February 8 – May 4, 2008
The Triumph of Marriage: Painted Cassoni of the Renaissance October 16, 2008 – January 19, 2009
Journeys East: Isabella Stewart Gardner and Asia February 21 – May 31, 2009
Modeling Devotion: Terra Cotta Sculpture in the Italian Renaissance February 23 – May 23, 2010
Illuminating the Serenissima: Books of the Republic of Venice May 3 – June 19, 2011
Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America February 28 – May 13, 2013

Contemporary art exhibitions

The Gardner has also hosted the following exhibitions of contemporary art.[11]

Exhibition Title Date
Danijel Zezelj: Stray Dogs June 24 – August 21, 2005
Variations On a Theme by Sol Lewitt and Paula Robison September 23 – November 13, 2005
A Pagan Feast November 22, 2005 – January 8, 2006
Henrik Håkansson: Cyanopsitta spixii Case Study #001 June 30 – September 17, 2006
Sculpture and Memory: Works from the Gardner and by Luigi Ontani February 9 – May 6, 2007
Stefano Arienti: The Asian Shore June 29 – October 14, 2007
Cliff Evans: Empyrean November 9, 2007 – January 13, 2008
Luisa Rabbia: Travels with Isabella, Travel Scrapbooks 1883/2008 June 26 – September 28, 2008
Su-Mei Tse: Floating Memories July 16 – October 18, 2009
Taro Shinoda: Lunar Reflections November 5, 2009 – January 1, 2010
Once June 18–20, 2010
Stefano Arienti: Ailanthus 2012
Points of View: 20 Years of Artists-in-Residence at the Gardner January 19 – August 20, 2012
(TAPESTRY) RADIO ON: New Work by Victoria Morton at the Gardner January 19 – May 28, 2012
Magic Moments: The Screen and the Eye–9 Artists 9 Projections June 21 – August 20, 2012
Luisa Lambri: Portrait January 19 – October 15, 2012
Raqs Media Collective: The Great Bare Mat and Constellation September 20, 2012 – January 7, 2013
Stefano Arienti: Wild Carrot June 2012 – April 2013
Untitled: Adam Pendleton April – October 2013
Sophie Calle: Last Seen October 24, 2013 – March 3, 2014
Carla Fernández: The Barefoot Designer: A Passion for Radical Design and Community April 17 – September 1, 2014


See also


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External links

  • Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website
  • FBI theft page and Mar 2013 update
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