Boston: Who was Isabella Stewart Gardener?

While I’m between trips and haven’t done enough research for a new Juneau History Project post lately, I thought I’d share some (edited) posts I originally wrote while in school in Boston in 2009/10 on a now defunct blog (read at most by only three family members). Inspired by The Year of 52 Adventures, I made a point of using my weekends to explore much of what Boston had to offer. I fell in love with Boston, so if you happen to find yourself in Boston, perhaps these posts will lead to your own love affair…

The Isabella Stewart Gardener museum was next door to one of my classroom buildings, so when time was short, but a study break was needed, this was our go-to attraction. This small museum is well known for the heist of 13 of its paintings, which to this day have not been returned. The frames hang empty on the walls, in the hopes that some day these paintings might one day be returned to their rightful places. Sadly, at least one of these paintings is a Vermeer and there are so few Vermeer paintings left as it is, that I hope these paintings will be recovered someday.

Originally Posted September, 2009

This morning I discovered that with my student ID card I could gain free entry to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, so I decided that would be the activity of the day. (Side note- If your name happens to be Isabella, you may register for unlimited free entry forever.) This museum is right next to the Simmons academic campus quad so after a lunch at the main campus building I headed next door.

The history of the museum, briefly, is that it was designed by and built to the specifications of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) and in her will she declared that the arrangement of objects in the galleries may not be changed, ever. With this in mind I wandered in with a few questions:
Could I tell this place was designed by a woman?
and what does the place tell me about her as a person?

The museum consists of three stories that circle a central courtyard garden under a windowed roof- in other words built much like ancient Roman houses. Each room of the museum, including the courtyard, was a feast for the eyes! The lighting for most of the rooms came from the natural sunlight through windows that overlooked the courtyard. However, this meant that the few rooms not directly off the courtyard were extremely dark. While it was all visually delightful, I was at the same time frustrated by the amount of roped off areas. The doorways of the courtyard are roped off so you cannot walk into it and the furniture in each room was also roped off. While I understand from a preservation point of view that this is necessary, the vibe I got from the place was that this woman who had designed a place to show off her art, trinkets, and furniture collection would have wanted her visitors to be able to interact more with the space. I wonder if there is a balance between preservation necessities and allowing a closer interaction with historical pieces?

I was also frustrated by the fact that there seemed to be no explanation as to what each of the pieces in each room were until I found that some rooms had cards that used pictures and numbers to label each item on each wall and describe in depth only a couple items on each card. Once I made this discovery I was quite happy and went around the museum a second time, this time looking for rooms with cards I had missed. These explanations made me realize that the art was not just on the walls, it was from floor to ceiling. The floor tiles I stood on in the “Dutch Room” were picked and ordered by Isabella. The wooden ceiling beams had inlaid art. Isabella created a piece of art in which to house her art!

I was very excited when I stumbled upon two Botticelli paintings and the Titian painting of Europa I had learned about in class last year. Standing that close to the canvas which the great master painters I had learned about had personally touched with their brush so long ago was awe inspiring to the historian in me. The most interesting painting to me was one of Isabella Stewart Gardner in which she almost looks like a religious figure. I read that this painting caused such an uproar that the room in which it is hung was closed off during the woman’s lifetime. Most of the paintings seem to be Italian Renaissance art depicting religious scenes. My favorite painting today was one of Queen Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), the daughter of King Henry VIII. (This is only because I just finished watching the first season of the Tudors and have a momentary fascination with anything to do with the Tudors.)

One of the more interesting non-painting pieces was in a cabinet filled with silver pieces. It was an ostrich who’s body was a real ostrich egg. I read off the card that at one point ostrich eggs were valuable collectors items. But how do they preserve this piece if it is a real egg? Preserving anything organic is always a problem.

In the end I decided the place was designed very much like a woman: it was beautiful-each room was a feast for the eyes, it was exciting-the treasures in each room were eclectic and unexpectedly delightful, and at the same time very frustrating-though I don’t think this last one was Isabella’s intention. I was never able to decide what exactly the place told me about Isabella as a person, unless it was that she was delightful, eclectic, and well worth visiting.

[Sorry there are no photos with this post, but it is a museum…so I guess you’ll just have to visit it yourself!]

Have you visited the Isabella Sewart Gardener museum? What were your impressions?

Series Navigation<< Boston: Follow the Red Brick Road, The Freedom TrailBoston: At the base of the Green Monster >>

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *