on July 25, 2000
This is one of my Boston favorites and if I tried to write everything I want to share with you about this museum it would probably fill a book. The history of this museum is that interesting, so let me try to just hit a few highlights.
In 1891 Isabella Stewart Gardner began her collection with the money she inherited from her father. She built Fenway Court (now known as the Gardner Museum) with the intention of using it as a showcase for her collection, with her own living quarters on the fourth floor. Contrary to popular belief the entire structure was not brought over from Venice, only various windows and balconies.
She collected both masters and contemporary artists of her day, often becoming friends with artists, in particular John Singer Sargent who painted her portrait in 1888. This caused a great amount of controversy in conservative Boston when it was displayed at the Botoloph Club. Following this, her husband asked that it not be publicly displayed during his lifetime. After his death in 1898 she continued to keep it from view until her passing. It is now on display at the museum.
Upon first entering the museum visitors are often awe struck at the display of Sargent’s “El Jaleo.” This painting first belonged to her cousin, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, who loaned it to her while he was traveling. When he returned he found that she had reconstructed Fenway Court to showcase this painting in such a breath-taking manner that he gave her the painting on the spot.
Immediately to the right of the painting is the fabulous courtyard whose gardens change with the seasons.
As you continue through the museum you will undoubtedly notice empty frames hanging in one room. Isabella Stewart Gardner specified in her will that everything remain in the museum as she designed, so the decision was made to leave the frames empty and in their place after a robbery on March 18, 1990 in which 12 pieces (including 3 Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, and 5 Degas) were stolen, some cut directly out of their frames. So far none of these pieces have been recovered.
My suggestion for visiting this museum is to not try to visit on the same day you go to the MFA despite their close proximity – it would be too overwhelming. After marveling at “El Jaleo” and the courtyard upon entering, take a quick stroll through all the rooms stopping only when something strongly catches your eye. Then go to the museum shop and buy a guidebook. Isabella Stewart Gardner wanted people to react to the art, not the artist, so therefore refused to display any title plates next to the paintings. By experiencing the museum in this manner you are able to accomplish her wishes and then gain a deeper understanding of what you are seeing.
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