The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum BY BRITTANY GOOD

BY BRITTANY GOOD


Fig. 1: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888 Oil on cavas, 74? x 31½ inches
Fig. 1: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888 Oil on cavas, 74? x 31½ inches
Fig. 1: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888 Oil on cavas, 74? x 31½ inches
Fig. 1: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925)
Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888
Oil on cavas, 74? x 31½ inches


One of the foremost female patrons of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s (1840–1924) (Fig. 1), interest in collecting began in the 1880s after attending lectures on art history and readings of Dante at Harvard College. Enamored by the writer, Gardner began collecting Dante’s rare editions. In the coming years her interests grew and she began collecting Dutch and Italian paintings and, in 1894, Gardner turned to the young art historian Bernard Berenson (1865–1959) for advice on her acquisitions. Under Berenson’s instruction Gardner added Sandro Botticelli’s (ca. 1445–1510) Lucretia, Titian’s (Tiziano Vecellio, ca. 1488–1576) Europa (Fig. 2), and Rembrandt’s (1606–1669) Self-Portrait to her holdings. To this day, Europa is revered as the most important work in Boston by many museum directors in the area.

Fig. 2: Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (Italian, circa 1488–1576) Europa, about 1560–62 Oil on canvas, 70 x 807/10 inches
Fig. 2: Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (Italian, circa 1488–1576) Europa, about 1560–62
Oil on canvas, 70 x 807/10 inches

By 1896 Gardner and her husband, Jack (1837–1898), realized that their Back Bay home was not large enough to house their growing collection. With the intent of opening a museum, the couple hired architect William T. Sears to design a building to house their works of fine and decorative arts. In 1903 Fenway Court, facing Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system, opened to the public, becoming the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum after her death. Containing more than 2,500 works including paintings, sculptures, textiles, furniture, drawings, silver, ceramics, illuminations, rare books, photographs, and letters, the Gardner’s is the only private art collection in which the building, collection, and installations are the creation of one individual. This unified vision is reflected in the comments of the Gardner’s friends, who noted that the museum was “an entire work of art in itself.”

Fig. 3: Courtyard garden display. Photography by Clements + Howcroft, 2008.
Fig. 3: Courtyard garden display. Photography
by Clements + Howcroft, 2008.

Designed with the palaces of nineteenth-century Venice in mind, the museum stands three stories tall and boasts a flower-filled courtyard (Fig. 3). Mrs. Gardner worked fervently to create a warm, intimate atmosphere, with numerous galleries following a loose organization; each room assembled with more concern for making an appealing display than keeping works of the same medium or time period together. Though her goal was “the education and enrichment of the public forever,” she wanted visitors to appreciate art for what it was, rather than focus on historic background.

Fig. 4: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), El Jaleo, 1882. Oil on canvas, 913/10 x 137 inches
Fig. 4: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), El Jaleo, 1882.
Oil on canvas, 913/10 x 137 inches

Isabella Gardner was a friend to such luminaries as John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) (Figs. 1, 4), James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), and Henry James (1843–1916), and the museum became a hub for artists as well as musicians, dancers, and intellectuals. This stimulating environment has continued, with concerts and performances held in the 4,000-square-foot Tapestry Room gallery (Fig. 5) and an active Artist-in-Residence program to facilitate the future of working artists.


When she died, Mrs. Gardner left a one million dollar endowment to the museum and outlined stipulations for its support, stating specifically that the permanent collection not be significantly altered. The museum has worked ardently to fulfill her wishes. The charge to preserve the museum building and its collections, combined with the need to relieve stress from increasing attendance on one of the most celebrated tapestry halls in the country, resulted in a decision to build an addition to the historic palace.


Fig. 5: Tapestry Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photography by T. E. Marr and Son, 1926.
Fig. 5: Tapestry Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photography by T. E. Marr and Son, 1926.

In January 2012, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened a new building situated approximately fifty feet behind the original structure (Fig. 6). Joined by a glass corridor, the new wing was designed by Renzo Piano, who incorporated old and new building fabric and a masterful use of light, much in the manner of Mrs. Gardner’s museum. Overseen by Anne Hawley, the Norma Jean Calderwood director of the museum, the extension includes a music hall, a new changing exhibition gallery for historic and contemporary art, an educational classroom, new conservation labs, and greenhouses and gardens. In the original palace, historic gallery space has been returned closer to Mrs. Gardner’s original compositions, including the historic Tapestry Room.



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