If time travel were real, you could transport yourself back to Boston 100 years ago and find the “Belle” of Boston and her amazing art collection at Fenway Court. But the truth is you don’t really need to because, down to the last frame and ornament, most everything today is exactly as it was over a century ago. The only real difference is a few of the frames are mysteriously empty.
I feel an especial affinity for the woman responsible for Fenway Court, now called The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in part because her two greatest passions in life were traveling and art. Passions which she wanted to share: Gardner’s legacy is now Boston’s most charming art experience. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Similar to The Borghese Gallery in Rome, Isabella Gardner’s vast collection sits in situ, housed in a palatial Renaissance-inspired mansion that was designed specifically for it. The four-story building is in itself an architectural jewell. At its heart, sunlight streams down from an immense industrial-era steel and glass skylight that spans its interior courtyard. The rays sparkle on a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman mosaic floor and marble sculptures. The garden’s lush vegetation complements brick-arched cloisters, water features, and a grand double staircase. Like my favorite park in Paris, it’s pure Romanticism.
On every level, rooms filled with incredible art spin off from the central courtyard. Gardner was a master collector and her museum boasts some of the biggest names and movements in art. From the Renaissance: Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Veronese, Dürer, and Hans Holbein the Younger. From the Baroque period: Rubens, van Dyck,Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velásquez.
Gardner also enjoyed Modern art and collected Degas, Manet, Matisse, and Whistler, as well as important American artists of her day like John Singer Sargent. Each room is eclectically organized with few names and no descriptions. Its a museum that places an emphasis on experiencing the art as it is without worrying who made it or its larger art context.
But perhaps one of the most curious aspects of this museum are its empty frames.
In 1990, two thieves posing as police officers burgled the museum and stole 13 artworks. In some cases, they stole the paintings by cutting the canvas right out and leaving the empty frames behind. It’s the biggest art heist in history.
When Gardner passed away her will supported the museum with the stipulation that nothing be changed from how she had it when she was alive. For that reason, you can now see empty frames with wallpaper peaking out from behind. The FBI still has the burglary as an open case and the museum is still offering a $5 million reward for any information leading to the return of the art.
Another interesting aspect of Gardner’s will is its impact on restoration and preservation of the art and the museum. For a limited time, the entire 2nd floor is currently off limits as they work to preserve the building. All the artwork from that floor has been removed and temporarily put on display “Off the Wall” at the museum’s adjoining new wing. This means that right now you can get the normal awesome experience of the original Fenway Court as well as see the entire 2nd floor collection in a typical museum display complete with perfect lighting and contextual placards. It’s the bet of both worlds.
If you go:
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is directly behind Boston’s Museum of Fine Art and an easy 15 minute walk from Fenway Park. It’s easy to get there on public transit, just take the E line (a street car that is sometimes underground) to the Museum of Fine Art stop. Walk around the left side of the Museum of Fine Art and cross Evans Way Park to find the Isabella Gardner Museum directly behind it. Admission is $15 for adults. There are discounted tickets for seniors and students. Check the museum’s great website for more information.
— Laura Rowley