If you have ever been to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, you can think of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as being its lesser known, yet equally captivating, slightly older cousin.The outside of the museum boasts a modern and sleek facade that hides the hidden wonders just beyond the entrance. Once the visitor ventures through a glass-enclosed path to the original foundation of the museum, they encounter Isabella’s initial vision for the space, a Venetian inspired, pale pink and stucco building enclosing a tranquil courtyard. Ferns, exotic plants, and white stone fountains sprout from the ground, filling the sunlit space. Visitors of the museum can be seen in a daze, sprawled out on the outskirts of the garden, most likely imagining themselves transported to one of Isabella’s favorite places in the world: Venice.
Wandering into the building itself, visitors venture through a personal collection of Isabella’s, one which she curated during her extensive travels across the globe. The museum houses incredible works from artists such as John Singer Sargent, Botticelli, and Rembrandt, all integrated into a collection of oddities such as ostrich eggs, a silk Napoleonic flag, and leather wall tiles. Undoubtedly, walking through the museum can feel random, especially because none of the art pieces have blurbs explaining their context or artist. As I ventured through the decorated rooms, I often struggled to make some of the connections Isabella was trying to make among the various works. However, there is an aspect of roaming around the museum that is freeing, seeing that each visitor can have a different encounter with the collection.
Yet, every visitor comes away with feeling as though they are experiencing Isabella herself, making her acquaintance through the walls of her gallery and former residence, where almost nothing has been altered since her death. I say “almost” because one thing has been changed: the picture frames that once held paintings, such as Rembrandt’s only known seascape The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and The Concert by Vermeer, hang empty on the walls. These frames serve as symbols of the museum’s loss from the infamous art heist that took place on March 18, 1990, by two thieves disguised as police officers who stole thirteen works of art worth 500 million dollars—the greatest single property theft in world history. There is still an ongoing investigation that will grant you five million dollars for any information relating to the incident, double the reward being offered until December 31, 2017.
I invite you to experience the curiosities of the museum for yourself and to keep your eyes peeled for any clues relating to the theft, as we hope the museum will be restored to Isabella’s complete vision once again.