Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner

Gardner, Isabella Stewart, 1840-1924, American art collector, b. New York City. She lived in Boston following her marriage to the financier Jack Gardner. After the Civil War her home became known for brilliant social affairs and as a center for gatherings of painters, literary people, musicians, and other celebrities. Her lifelong interest in art led her to sponsor various contemporary artists and the young connoisseur Bernard Berenson, who advised her in the collecting of many works. Her husband cooperated with her in her plan to create an art museum. Fenway Court was built after the Venetian manner to house their valuable collection and was willed to the city of Boston as a public museum to be preserved without change.

See A. Pope and J. D. Hatch, Jr., ed., The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Reproductions of Paintings (1935); M. Carter, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Fenway Court (1925, 2d ed. 1940); L. H. Tharp, Mrs. Jack (1965); D. Shand-Tucci, The Art of Scandal (1997).

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or Fenway Court is a museum in Boston, Massachusetts with a collection of over 2,500 works of European, Asian and American art, including paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and decorative arts. The museum also hosts of historic and contemporary art.


In 1896, Isabella Stewart Gardner hired architect Willard T. Sears to design the museum.

The museum was established in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924), a wealthy patron of the arts. It is housed in a building designed to evoke a Venetian Renaissance palazzo, but it was built entirely from the ground up in Boston, out of new materials, incorporating numerous architectural fragments from European Gothic and Renaissance structures. The antique elements are seamlessly worked into the design of the turn-of-the-century building. Special tiles were custom designed for the floors, modern concrete was used for some of the structural elements, and antique capitals sit atop modern columns. The interior garden courtyard is covered by a glass roof, with steel support structure original to the building. The building was not brought to America from Venice and reconstructed; that is a common misconception.

The museum has a small but outstanding collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, ceramics, prints, drawings, manuscripts, rare books, jewelry, and Japanese screens. It is particularly rich in Italian Renaissance paintings, as well as in 19th-century works by John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. The first Matisse to enter an American collection is housed there.

The Gardner Museum is much admired for the intimate atmosphere in which its works of art are displayed and its flower-filled courtyard. Most of the art pieces are unlabeled, and the generally dim lighting is more akin to a private house than a modern art museum. There is additionally a performance hall in which a piano and extra seating are located, and concerts are held there most Sundays from September through May.

Gardner began collecting seriously after she received a large inheritance from her father in 1891. Her purchase of Vermeer's The Concert at auction in Paris in 1892 was her first major acquisition. In 1894, Bernard Berenson offered his services in helping her acquire a Botticelli. Berenson helped acquire nearly 70 works of art for her collection.

To honor their founder, the museum offers free admission and occasional special events for anyone named Isabella.


On the morning of March 18, 1990, thieves disguised as police officers broke into the museum and stole thirteen works of art, including a painting by Vermeer (The Concert) and three Rembrandts (two paintings, including his only seascape The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and a small self-portrait print) as well as works by Manet, Degas, Govaert Flinck, and a French and a Chinese artifact. It is considered the biggest art theft in US history and remains unsolved. The museum still displays the paintings' empty frames in their original locations due to the strict provisions of Gardner's will, which instructed that the collection be maintained unchanged. The thefts are a subject of a 2005 documentary called Stolen which in a slightly different version had earlier appeared on Court TV.

In September 2004 and February 2005 there were reports in Variety, the Boston Herald and The Boston Globe about a new theory emerging on the theft, as in early February 2005 the FBI flew an American art dealer from New York to Paris to meet with the French National Police and pursue new leads.

Several of the people implicated by the emerging theory, which alleged that the Boston Mob did the burglary and then brokered the paintings to European dealers and collectors through an art dealer affiliated with the Genovese crime family, had been arrested in 1999 for an armored car robbery, a robbery they never even got to attempt. In late 2005, the museum hired a former Homeland Security official who helped to rebuild security at Logan Airport after the events of September 11, 2001. The museum then immediately brought MAC Systems and General Electric in to conduct a large-scale and comprehensive upgrade ot the facility's access control system. More upgrades are in the works to ensure that the events of March 18, 1990, are never repeated.


Although Isabella Stewart Gardner stipulated the current collection remain in the state it was in upon her death, with everything arranged according to her stipulations, the museum from time to time has organized temporary exhibitions. On November 29, 2004, it announced this exhibition program would grow, and will construct a new building to accommodate growth outside the original Gardner collection. Renzo Piano's firm is to serve as the expansion's architects. The new building will triple special exhibition space, create new office and cafe space, and relocate the museum's main entrance. The planned completion date is 2010.


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