Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum | Attraction Guides | History Hit

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Boston, United States

Sarah Roller

21 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Sarah Roller

About Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum houses an important art collection: it is most famous for being the victim of the biggest art heist in history.

History of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy American socialite, philanthropist and art collector. Following a year-long trip to Europe with her husband Jack in 1867, she became increasingly interested in learning about new cultures, and developed a passion for collecting. In 1891, Isabella inherited $1.75 million from her father, and began collecting art in earnest – frequent trips to Europe and the Middle East saw the Gardners’ collection grow rapidly. At this point, women were not often found in auction houses and art dealers, so Isabella often used her agent or husband to buy works.

After the death of her husband Jack in 1898, Isabella decided to build a specific museum for their collection – a longheld dream of the couple. The new museum was located in the unfashionable marshy Fenway area of Boston, and was based on 15th century Italian palazzos. Isabella was involved in every aspect of design and execution of her beloved museum, and personally curated the interior.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened in 1903, initially for private viewing only. On her death, Isabella left a $1 million bequest to ensure that the museum would be fully opened to the public, stipulating that nothing in the museum’s collection should be changed or moved. If it was, the whole collection was to be sold at auction and the proceeds given to specified charities. The fourth floor was used as the director’s residence until 1989.

In March 1990, two thieves robbed the museum, stealing 13 works of art with a combined estimated value of $500 million, making it the biggest art heist in history. Notably, the thieves took Vermeer’s The Concert (one of only 34 known Vermeers in the world), and The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the only known seascape by Rembrandt. The empty frames still hang in place, in the hope the works will one day be returned.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum today

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is still open to the public today. Closed on Tuesdays, it’s one of Boston’s premier museums. Expect to spend a good half day exploring it thoroughly, and check the website for timings of free 30 minute public talks introducing aspects of the museum, its history and collection.

Visitors to the museum are asked to follow a relatively specific route, winding round and round from the ground floor to the top – guards will make it quite hard to go back the other way, so take your time in each room and explore fully. Some of the information on the audio guides is extremely interesting, and the room guides are invaluable for showing you which painting is which.

Getting to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The museum is in south west Boston, just off the Fenway. The nearest T stop is the Museum of Fine Arts (green line E), or Ruggles (orange line) which is a little bit further afield. If you’re travelling by bus, the 8, 19, 39, 47, CT2, and CT3 routes all stop close by. Parking can be found at the MFA or Simmons College, but expect to pay heavily for the privilege.

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