Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Sierra on February 27, 2007

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of the more unusual museums in the U.S. - housed in a Venetian-style palazzo, and located on the Back Bay Fens park, two blocks from the MFA. The building was designed by Willard T. Sears with considerable input from Gardner, and opened in 1903. The modest exterior doesn't prepare you for passing through the dark entry into the glorious Italian palazzo garden in the building's center. (I have no pictures of the courtyard because photography is forbidden inside the museum. See their website for photos.)

Gardner was inspired by her childhood visits to Italy. By 16, she was determined that if she ever had the means, she would create a museum like the wonderful palazzos she had visited, and make art accessible for all, not just the well-to-do.

Throughout her life, she collected art, which she displayed in their house on nearby Beacon Street. After her husband died, she dedicated her fortunes to building and stocking the museum: it currently contains over 2,500 pieces of art. The collection is highly eclectic, but considered to have many noteworthy pieces of art: paintings, textiles, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, prints, drawings, jewelry, Japanese screens, manuscripts and rare books are on display. Some pieces of particular note are works by John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, and a notable collection of Italian Renaissance portraits.

Gardner willed her museum to the city on three conditions:
1. No new art could be added to the collection;
2. No art could be permanently removed from the collection;
3. All art must remain on display exactly as she planned it, and not moved or rearranged.

Her will further stipulated that if any of these three conditions were not met, then all the art would be sold at auction and the proceeds would benefit Harvard University. This also makes it very difficult for the curatorial staff to protect the condition of the art, as museums generally rotate art to protect it from the damaging effects of light.

These conditions also make the museum seem somewhat chaotic. Very few items are labeled; some rooms are jammed with items while others seem sparse. There is little if no obvious sense to most of the rooms' groupings; Gardner felt that art was a highly personal experience, and wanted to encourage looking at the art, not merely reading labels. (You can boy/borrow a museum guidebook at the entrance.)

On March 18, 1990, art thieves disguised as policemen overcame museum guards and made off with 13 pieces of art, including Rembrandt's only know seascape (The Storm on the Sea of Galilee). Due to the museum conditions, the empty frames remain on display, a reminder of the biggest art theft in U.S. history - still unsolved, nearly twenty years later.

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Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11am-5pm
Closed: July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas.

Adults $12; seniors $10; students $5; under 18 free (check website for latest prices)

Transportation: Green Line E-train - Museum stop. Limited street parking; garage nearby.

Tel. 617-566-1401
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
280 The Fenway
Boston, Massachusetts, 02115
(617) 566-1401

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