20 August 2021
In this latest instalment of our 'ACE Stories' series, we explore the extensive collection of the great American philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the home she built for herself and her art treasures.
Annunciation, Piermatteo d'Amelia, c.1475
In the 1860s, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed a chain of parks, linked by waterways and parkways in the state of Massachusetts, known as the ‘Emerald Necklace’. One of the links in the necklace, the Back Bay Fens – at one point an unassuming newly reclaimed area of former marshland – was later to become no less than a cultural centre for the arts in the City of Boston.
In 1899, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts purchased land in the Fens, as did Isabella Stewart Gardner – the recently widowed wife of businessman, philanthropist and former MFA board member Jack Gardner. For many years, Isabella had been collecting art, and after purchasing Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Age 23 in 1896, she had decided that her collection required a new home. A vision for her own museum was born.
Today, walking through the iconic Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, one encounters an eclectic mix of architectural styles. Columns, arches and motifs combine to reflect a diversity of influences ranging from Roman to Romanesque, Byzantine to Gothic. Travels through Italy, and in particular Venice, where the Gardners would stay at the Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal, informed their taste – and they brought back fragments such as reliefs, capitals and statuary for the gallery in Boston.
The Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Isabella keenly supervised the construction work on her new museum, and it was completed in 1901. The following year, she began filling the building with art, and continued to add to and curate the collection until her death in 1924. Isabella resided in private living quarters on the fourth floor of the museum, whilst the lower three floors were devoted to housing works of art.
“downstairs, I feel, are all those glories I could go and look at, if I wanted to! Think of that. I can see that Europa, that Rembrandt, that Bonifazio, that Velázquez et al. – any time I want to. That’s richness for you”
- Isabella Stewart Gardner, in a letter to her friend and art advisor, the influential American art historian Bernard Berenson
The collection encompasses both the fine and decorative arts, with significant holdings of paintings, sculpture and tapestries, as well as manuscripts, works on paper, jewellery, mosaics and musical instruments.
Isabella had begun buying works of art after receiving a large inheritance from her father, and her first major acquisition was Vermeer’s The Concert, which she bought at auction in Paris in 1892 – typifying her exquisite taste and the calibre of her collection. With the assistance of art historian Bernard Berenson, who acted in an advisory role to Isabella, she then went on to acquire pieces by many Old Masters, including Botticelli, Titian and Michelangelo.
Isabella was also a patron – John Singer Sargent painted her portrait in 1888 – and she invited performers, scholars and artists to her home, even hosting occasional exhibitions of living artists’ works.
Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, John Singer Sargent, 1888
Museum highlights include Piero della Francesca’s Hercules, Fra Angelico’s Death and Assumption of the Virgin, a portrait of King Philip IV of Spain by Velázquez, Boucher’s The Chariot of Venus and watercolours depicting Venice by Singer Sargent. Statuary in the collection ranges from a Roman torso of Dionysus to a tin-bronze bust by Cellini and a 16th century painted wood sculpture of German origin portraying Saint George.
Today, as well as commemorating Isabella’s legacy as one of the foremost art collectors of her time, the museum retains its role as an important centre for the contemporary arts. A New Wing, constructed in glass, was designed by award-winning architect Renzo Piano to complement the original building. Describing its relationship to Isabella’s palazzo, Piano stated that New Wing – which opened in 2012 – ought to take on the role of a “respectful nephew to the great aunt”.
The museum continues its founder’s work today by supporting artists and creative talent, creating multi-disciplinary cultural experiences and encouraging new research, for example through an Artist in Residence programme, a Visiting Curator of Performing Arts post, and a series of Neighbourhood Salons, which aims to nurture connections and form collaborations between Boston creatives.
Boston Commons in the Spring
A visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will feature on ACE’s tour of Great Art Collections of New England in May 2022 led by expert Tour Director Sarah Burles. Sarah, who studied at Cambridge University and University College London before going on to work with Cambridge museums including the Fitzwilliam, is particularly interested in the lives of the collectors whose legacies have shaped the museums we see today. Following a rewarding tour to New England in 2019, she looks forward to returning with another ACE group next spring.
"This tour takes us to some of the most important art collections in the United States, where we will be privileged to see superb Old Master, French Impressionist and American paintings, as well as many other stunning works of art.
In addition, the lives of the patrons and philanthropists who created these extraordinary collections present us with a series of fascinating narratives, as do the buildings which house them – several of which have recently been redeveloped by the world’s leading architects."
- ACE Tour Director Sarah Burles
Other highlights of ACE’s itinerary will include the Clark Institute, the Yale Center for British Art, Harvard Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. For more information, please visit the tour page using the link below, or contact us on 01223 841055.