I’ve never been to a museum that has left me in so much awe as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. There is something so magical and quirky about it, from purchasing your ticket and discovering that if your name is Isabella or if it is your birthday, you can enter for free (decreed specifically by Stewart Gardner herself), to wandering through to what can only be described as an oasis in the centre of the bustling city of Boston: a central courtyard of a Venetian palazzo. And feel free to imagine yourself in a Venetian palazzo, because you truly are in one, transplanted to the US; Stewart Gardner and her husband, John (Jack) Gardner acquired many of the decorative and architectural sections on a trip to Venice in 1897.
Stewart Gardner, as you might tell upon visiting the museum at Fenway Court, was an enthusiastic collector who had a lifelong ambition to create such a house filled with art and treasures. She was born in New York City in 1840, and was educated between tutors, private school in New York, and finishing school in Paris. During the years spent at finishing school, when she was between sixteen and seventeen years old, she joined her parents on a trip to Italy, which seemed to seal the deal as far as she was concerned; she adored art and architecture, particularly of the Renaissance period. Her love of travel and collecting matched well with the kindred spirit in her husband, and they travelled extensively in Europe, as well as all over the world.
A reporter in 1875 wrote of her: “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 eccentric, and she has the courage of eccentricity. She is the leader of the smart set, but she often leads where none dare follow… She imitates nobody; everything she does is novel and original.”
Upon the sudden death of her husband in 1898, Stewart Gardner decided it was time to put her plans for a museum into action, and the building began. It opened five years later, in 1903.
As I walked through the museum, I felt like I was in a dreamworld, borne from the mind of somebody who had managed to piece together everything they loved about the artistic world. And this was Stewart Gardner’s desire, with her central motif, “C’est mon plaisir” (“It is my pleasure”), emblazoned above the main portal to the museum. The unique set of spaces will transport you to different times and places, all at once within the same building.
While in that magical building in the centre of Boston, I travelled through cloisters that evoked medieval European monasteries, a Chinese loggia, a room bedecked in beautiful tapestries, a chapel complete with dark wood church seating and a French stained glass window; rooms that made me feel like I was entering a nineteenth-century salon and would be joining the world of Stewart Gardner’s circle, and those devoted to specific artists of the Renaissance.
Why is it such a dreamworld? It seems that Stewart Gardner was struck by visiting the collection of Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, when she took the trip with her parents as a teenager. He had not only created his own museum with a collection that covered anything and everything he was interested in, but also a foundation to maintain the museum for public use in perpetuity. On top of this, the rooms he displayed his collection in were specially designed to make the viewer feel like they were travelling through different historical periods. This was to be almost the exact model for Stewart Gardner’s own space.
And because Stewart Gardner engineered the space as much to be a museum as representative of her (when she left the museum and endowment behind upon her death in 1924, she added the condition that nothing should ever leave or enter the collection, and the display should always remain as she left it), I found myself thinking as much of her as the objects in her collection as I wandered around the museum.
For instance, what must Stewart Gardner have thought in her room devoted to Raphael, with its beautiful crimson wallpaper (like that used in the Titian Room), when she was the first American to bring Raphael to the United States? Two works by the Renaissance master are in this room (as well as a drawing in the Short Gallery), and I spent hours looking at the portrait of Count Tommaso Inghirami. Inghirami was the papal librarian for Pope Julius II, and the portrait was completed around 1510, the year after he was appointed to office. The other Raphael in this room is a small central part of an altarpiece – both were secured through Bernard Berenson, even if Stewart Gardner did spend months haggling over the price of the Inghirami portrait with him, eventually settling on $7,000 as opposed to the $15,000 Berenson originally wanted.
But what made me wonder most about Stewart Gardner’s museum today is of course the reminders of the 1990 art theft from the museum. Thirty years on, the thirteen art works stolen, including paintings by Vermeer, Manet and Degas, have still not been recovered. The Dutch Room, to me, bears the clearest reminder of the single largest property theft in the world, with six works having been taken from here. In following Stewart Gardner’s desire to not change the installation of her museum, we see the empty frames on the wall, to what would have included a Rembrandt self-portrait, as well as his paintings A Lady and Gentleman in Black and Christ in the Storm of the Sea of Galilee (his only seascape), and Vermeer’s The Concert. I feel that Stewart Gardner might think that leaving the frames in place signifies hope for these artworks to return one day and fill the spaces they have left behind on the walls of her eponymous museum.
Visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum feels a little like experiencing two things that are completely bound together: the collection, and the woman herself, who left behind an incredible legacy that bears testament to an incredible and voracious mind.
The museum is open every day except Tuesdays, 11am-5pm. Find out more details and about purchasing tickets in advance here: https://www.gardnermuseum.org/visit.
The museum website is also very helpful for exploring from home: find audio walks and guides to all the room, as well as the collection. Also explore the newer part of the museum: built so that additions could be made and new artistic events held, whilst still paying attention to the stipulations made by Stewart Gardner in her will.
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Lizzie Rogers is a historian of eighteenth-century Women’s History. She has recently submitted her PhD thesis on female collectors, curiosity and the Enlightenment in the English country house at the University of Hull, where she also completed her BA and MRes, specializing in History of Art and Gender History.
Alongside her studies, Lizzie has volunteered at the University of Hull Art Collection and the National Trust, as well as undertaking a curatorial internship at Stratford Hall, Virginia. A lover of art, reading and writing, she runs her own history blog at https://historylizzie.co.uk/.