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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is located in Boston, Massachusetts. The museum was founded by Isabella Stewart Gardner, an art collector who acquired a huge collection of masterpieces in her lifetime. More than 25,000 artworks are on display and they include different forms of sculpture, painting, tapestry work and decorative arts. Isabella called for her art collection to exhibit ‘for the education and enjoyment of the public forever’. In this article, we will explore the history of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Museum and the variety that lies in its collection.
The Museum's History and its Collection
In 1898-1901, Isabella Gardner commissioned architect Willard Sears to design the museum's building, ‘Fenway Court’ in the style of a fifteenth century Venetian palace. Gardner purchased land in the Fenway area of Boston, this would be the new site for her Fenway Wing. She was deeply involved with the design process which was modelled on the Renaissance palaces of Venice. William Sears has stated that he was simply the structural engineer behind the museum's design. Gardner spent a year installing her collection after the building's construction was complete. The museum has three floors of galleries, each one organised with artworks from different cultures and periods. The museum officially opened to the public In 1903 and a grand celebration occurred. The Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted a special performance. In 1909 the Museum of Fine Arts moved its new home close by.
In 1891, Gardner received a large inheritance from her father. She used this money to begin collecting a wider range of artworks. Her first major purchase was Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert (c.1664) from an auction house in 1892 in Paris. American Art historian Bernard Berenson helped Gardner acquire a painting by Botticelli. Gardner was the first American person to own a painting by Botticelli - the Renaissance master!
Isabella Gardner would frequently invite performers, scholars and artists to Fenway Court to study her wonderful rich collection in its Venetian setting. John Singer Sargent was one of the artists who would regularly visit Fenway Court, this is a watercolour image of Isabella that Sargent famously completed in 1922.
Gardner also hosted many artist exhibitions at Fenway Court including American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd. Gardner appointed Morris Carter as the museum’s first director, Carter was her secretary and the former librarian of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The entire collection was catalogued by Carter - he also wrote Gardner’s definitive biography.
Gardner collected and displayed a collection of more than 7,500 paintings, sculptures, textiles, ceramics, silvers, furniture, 1,500 rare books and 7,000 archival objects from Renaissance Italy, Asia, the Islamic World Medieval Europe, Rome and 19th century France and America. Artists represented within the museum include Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Manet, Whistler, Degas, Sargent and Titian.
The Art Theft of 1990
On March 18th, 1990, two thieves robbed the Gardner Museum of thirteen artworks - worth $500 million in total. Works that were stolen also included Johannes Vermeer's painting The Concert (c.1660) and Rembrandt’s only seascape The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633). The Dutch Room Gallery hangs empty frames - Interestingly they remain as placeholders for the missing works. The FBI discovered that the stolen artworks were put up for sale in Philadelphia during the early 2000s. Netflix have created a four part documentary focused on the theft called This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Heist.
Isabella Stewart Gardner's legacy is kept alive today as the museum continues to run innovative educational programs, courtyard garden displays, the museum's contemporary artist in residence program and concerts.
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