Mystery and Magnificence at the Isabella Gardner in Boston


Gardner Museum

Boston’s Fenway still has its own, unsolved, Thomas Crown affair.

New England icon Isabella Stewart grew up in New York and Paris.  Her initial connection with Boston came through a school friendship in the “City of Light”.

Isabella’s close friend Julia Gardner introduced her to Boston and to her family and friends in New England.

After a few years Isabella fell in love and married Julia’s older brother John (“Jack”) Lowell Gardner Jr. on April 10, 1860.

The couple was married in New York City and moved to Boston, Jack’s hometown, where they settled into a house which was a wedding gift from her father.  The well matched couple made a home together at 152 Beacon Street in the Back Bay section of the city.  In June 1863, Isabella Stewart Gardner gave birth to a son, John L. Gardner III, known as “Jackie.”  At just two years of age, Jackie died of pneumonia in March 1865.  During the two years that followed his death, Isabella Stewart Gardner endured temporary depression and illness.

At a doctor’s suggestion, John Gardner took his wife to Europe to travel throughout Scandinavia, Russia, Vienna, and Paris and, upon returning home, Isabella Gardner was in good health and spirits.  (Eat, Pray, Travel!)
Isabella rebounded heroically with a renewed zest for life.  She reignited her intellectual curiosity, love of the arts and passion for travel.  Beginning in the late 1880s, the couple traveled frequently across America, Europe, and Asia to discover foreign cultures and expand their knowledge of art around the world.  Gardner wrote fervently about her travels, revealing a great deal about her personality and inspirations in her journals.

Gardner’s favorite foreign destination was Venice, Italy.

The Gardners regularly stayed at the Palazzo Barbaro, a major artistic center for a circle of American and English expatriates in Venice, and visited Venice’s artistic treasures with amateur artist and former Bostonian, Ralph Curtis. While in Venice, Isabella Stewart Gardner bought art and antiques, attended the opera, and dined with a motley crew of artists, writers, and philosophers.  Her love of the city and of Italian culture inspired the design of her much loved Boston museum.

Back in Massachusetts, Isabella Gardner became an avid entertainer and frequent patron of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  The Gardners hosted dinner parties with well-known guests, including author Henry James, writer Sarah Orne Jewett, philosopher George Santayana, poet  Julia Ward Howe (also writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic), as well as emerging fine artists like John Singer Sargent.

The Gardner museum opened in 1903, with a grand opening celebration featuring a performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a menu that included champagne and doughnuts.  Her surprising appearance at a 1912 concert (at what was then a very formal Boston Symphony Orchestra) wearing a white headband emblazoned with “Oh, you Red Sox”, was reported at the time to have, “almost caused a panic in Boston”.  The event is one of the most talked about of her eccentricities.  Isabella lived on the fourth floor when in residence at the museum.

Today, the museum’s archives hold more than 7,000 letters from 1,000 correspondents as testaments to Isabella Gardner’s social nature and love of art.

These include glowing letters of thanks for dinner parties, concerts, and celebrations in her magnificent palazzo.  Not one to shy away from competition, Isabella Stewart Gardner was also interested in sports.  She attended Red Sox games, boxing matches, and hockey and football games at Harvard College.  Gardner relished in horse races, particularly if her horse won.  Her motto was, “Win as though you were used to it, and lose as if you like it.”

Even after her passing, the Gardner Museum grew in popularity especially among students in Boston’s Fenway.  The unique atmosphere is designed to relay the feeling of visiting a friend. The museum has few place cards and an abundance of natural light.

Unfortunately, tragedy stuck the Museum in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990.

Two white males dressed in Boston Police uniforms gained entrance to the Gardner Museum by convincing a security guard that they were responding to a report of a disturbance.  Against Museum policy, the guard allowed the thieves into the facility.  The two thieves subdued the on-duty security personnel.  No panic button was activated and no Boston Police notification was made during the strange burglary.  Video surveillance film from the evening of the robbery was seized by the thieves prior to departure.  However, they did not take the video footage from the night before and recently suspicious footage has been released to the public for continued investigation.

Twenty five years later, a $5 million reward has been offered by the Museum for information that leads directly to the recovery of all of the stolen items in good condition.

“We remain committed to one goal: the return of all 13 works to their rightful place, which is here at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum….no stone should be left unturned,” said Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum.

Lovers of the fine arts everywhere hope this case will be solved in their lifetime as renewed efforts unfold.  Secrets of this type are most difficult to keep forever.  Keep an eye out for Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee.


Isabella Gardner Museum Website



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