Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1903

As one of America’s foremost female patrons of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner was determined to open a museum that would be available “for the education and enrichment of the public forever.” Her father had made a great deal of money as a trader, and she spent the 1880s and ’90s rapidly collecting art, antiques, jewelry, and rare manuscripts. She and her husband, Jack, traveled extensively through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, snapping up objects wherever they went.

In 1898, Isabella bought a plot of land on the Fenway, former marshland in Boston. She worked with architect Willard Sears to design and build a mansion large enough to house a museum, yet imbued with the intimacy, light, and warmth of a Venetian palazzo. In 1903 Gardner’s museum was launched with thousands of pieces of American, European, and Asian art, a million-dollar bequest, and the blissful new building to house it all. It opened to the public amidst a fanfare of Baroque and classical music played by musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, another institution supported by Gardner.

This musical opening was no anomaly. Gardner wanted her intimate space to be a home for music and dance as well as the visual arts. Choreographer Ruth St. Denis, renowned soprano Nellie Melba, and many other performers lent their talents to the museum.

The art collection, though, was the greatest achievement. Gardner owned works by scores of masters including Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler, and Sargent. An infamous 1990 heist resulted in the theft of 13 paintings valued at up to $500 million. They remain lost. Yet Isabella Gardner’s museum continues to thrive, the rich personality she injected into it through its building, location, displays, room uses, and combinations of art remaining the hallmark of the institution today.