In the hustle and bustle of city life, everyone needs an escape. For some, that may be the quiet corner of a cafe or a secluded park, but one of Boston’s unique and treasured oases lies in Fenway, just a five-minute walk from the Museum of Fine Arts.
Opened in 1903, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was designed and filled by Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the earliest female art collectors. After amassing an astounding collection of artwork in the later decades of the 19th century, Gardner was eager to share her collection and love of art with her friends and the larger public. The home she envisioned for her collection, however, was vastly different from the formal structure of traditional museums, so Gardner created a stunning building inspired by 15th-century Venetian architecture in which she arranged and displayed her art. And according to Sarah Whitling, a marketing assistant for the museum, this history is part of what makes the museum so special.
“I think Isabella herself was an incredible, unique lady. I think she was eccentric and bold for her time,” Whitling said, also noting how Gardner often shocked the society around her.
And Gardner’s vision and determination truly paid off, for the intricate and palatial building alone often shocks visitors who expect a run-of-the-mill art gallery or a standard city building. Each room is filled with character and stunning architectural feats, but the entire space centers around a large courtyard filled with natural flora and light. Often, visitors come to visit this space alone, enjoying not only the unique space that hearkens back to centuries past and stunning landscaping within the courtyard, but also the peaceful quiet that is so rare within the city.
And the rooms that branch off of the courtyard are where many of the true treasures are located—works by master artists that Gardner carefully amassed over her lifetime. Each work and item is left exactly as she arranged it, with the exception of 13 empty frames. These frames, three of which are located within the museum’s famed Dutch Room, hang in tribute to the 13 works of art stolen from the Gardner collection in 1990, some of which were painted by masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Flinck.
But thankfully, these thieves—who have yet to be caught—overlooked most of the masterpieces within the Gardner collection, many of which are features in the museum’s latest exhibit, Off the Wall: Gardner and Her Masterpieces.
Located in the Hostetter Gallery, which is part of a more recent addition to the museum, the exhibit aims to provide the public with a spectacular view of some of the museum’s most treasured works. Featuring paintings by famed artists such as Rembrandt, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Rubens, the exhibit offers the chance to see the details of these masterpieces in a new light, as they are generally displayed on the museum’s much darker second floor, which is currently off-limits for a preservation project by the museum.
“It’s great because they’re displayed at eye level, and they are really lit to their best advantage, so visitors are able to see elements of the artworks that they may not have been able to see when they were hung at the Palace [on the second floor], because they were maybe hung high, or the lighting wasn’t ideal,” Whitling said. “So it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these works as they are.”
Whitling also noted that in addition to the paintings themselves, Gardner’s correspondences with art dealers are also displayed. These artifacts allow the exhibition to provide visitors with a chance to walk through Gardner’s story and how she collected these masterpieces over time.
Another recent development within the museum is the reopening of the Vatacino—an intimate space that was turned into a coat closet as the museum grew in popularity. Whitling said that the Vatacino was recently reclaimed as a display space for archived materials, such as Gardner’s letters and travel journals. This allows visitors to deepen their understanding of who Gardner was as a person and what she hoped that the museum would convey to visitors.
Whitling also emphasized that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a destination that should be visited multiple times, as it is filled with small hidden details that are often missed on the first visit. With each visit, visitors can discover something new, maybe even identifying their own favorite work or space within this spectacular oasis.
Featured Image by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum