Things You Didn’t Know: History of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a well-known hallmark spot in Boston. Knowing the museum’s venerable history, I was surprised not only with the modernity, but the liveliness that was felt throughout the whole building.

Despite being 176-years-old, the museum had a very energetic feel to it. The glass walls, greenery and open spaces provided a contemporary atmosphere.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a Boston socialite, during the Victorian era, who was recognized for her eccentric and offbeat nature, a reputation that she herself encouraged. At their home on Beacon Street, she and her husband often hosted dinner parties and concerts that were the center of artistic celebration in the city.

Evidence of Isabella’s connections are preserved by the 7,000 letters that document the close relationships she had with members of the inner artistic circle. The Gardners were avid travelers of Europe, always in search of new flourishing culture and art. They befriended many of the greatest artists of the time, such as John Singer Sargent and Henry James.

One of their favorite destinations, Venice, Italy, would serve as the catalyst and inspiration for what would become the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. While spending their time in the artistic circles of Venice, the couple purchased paintings and artwork from artists such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. Isabella created a literary collection consisting of works from writers like Dante.

Once their art collection became too vast to fit inside their home, they built a museum to house their collection. The building was based off of the Venetian palaces they frequented through their travels.

Once the museum was established, Isabella continuously expanded their collection and organized it meticulously. The walls are covered in paintings specifically arranged by Isabella herself. She was specific about the placement of every piece and her will requests that the arrangements be preserved. Knowing this makes viewers appreciate the care taken to maintain the galleries.

Unless a piece needed to be restored, none of the artwork left its spot—until the heist in 1990 that left 13 artworks stolen. The biggest property theft in American history, the planned heist went down as if it were the plot of a movie.

Two men disguised as police officers entered the museum pretending they were investigating a distress call. Before the museum guards even noticed the fake mustaches used as a disguise, they were tied up and cuffed.

In the course of an hour, 13 pieces of art were stolen. Extensive investigations were carried out to recover the $500 million worth of art.

There is a $5 million reward for information leading to its recovery, but to this day, the frames of the stolen paintings remain empty, awaiting its return.

The stolen artworks:

  • The Concert – Vermeer
  • The Storm on the Sea of Galilee – Rembrandt
  • A Lady and Gentleman in Black – Rembrandt
  • Self-Portrait –  Rembrandt
  • Landscape with an ObeliskGovaert Flinck
  • Chinese bronze gu from the Shang Dynasty
  • Chez Tortoni – Édouard Manet
  • La Sortie de Pesage  Degas
  • Cortege aux Environs de Florence Degas
  • Program for an Artistic Soirée ½  – Degas
  • Three Mounted Jockeys Degas
  • Bronze eagle finial

Photo courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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