The low-key, three-floor Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum embodies a woman who, for over three decades, assembled a collection of more than two thousand artifacts (paintings, sculptures, objects, textiles, drawings, manuscripts, photographs, letters, etc.) from around the world. Isabella’s story is intriguing, and her collection, a lifetime’s pursuit of diverse eccentricities, conveys the energy one woman found in the art of collections.
The story begins when Isabella lost her first and only child to pneumonia. Soon after, she discovered she would be unable to conceive again. Traumatized by the loss of her child and the barren news, Isabella felt defeated and sank into a two-year seclusion in which she remained in her room, refusing to interact with the outside world. In the end, it was Isabella’s husband’s decision to take her on a trip across Europe that revived Isabella’s love for life, setting in motion what was to become a lifetime’s addiction.
From her travels all over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Isabella found a new purpose: bringing back strange and beautiful objects from these foreign lands. After filling several warehouses in Boston with her new goods, she decided to build Fenway Court to house her entire collection, which she opened to the public in 1903.
However, not much is known about Isabella’s private life. She burned thousands of her letters before she died, leaving very little information about her personal story. Certainly, however, an intriguing persona lay behind this collection. In 1888, it took painter John Sargent nine tries to get the portrait that Isabella wanted of herself right. She was an “energetic intellectual curiosity,” but much of what the world knew about her came from her public-facing role as a socialite and avid collector of foreign esoteric things. Her collection includes framed textiles, signed letters from celebrities, and strange artifacts such as a seventeenth century silver German ostrich. When seen as a whole, the eclectic mix portrays the interest and curiosities of a woman from the late nineteenth century with the means to follow through on her passions.
Isabella Gardner is a perfect example of the difficulty in distinguishing an eccentric collector from a compulsive hoarder. Where does one draw the line? Is it a matter of taste or refinement? Quality over quantity? The ability to purchase more space so as to not wallow in what’s been amassed? Granted, most people don’t spend millions of dollars amassing treasures like Isabella, or trek the planet in search of curiosities, but we all have our quirks that hold inexplicable power to us alone.
In 1990, the museum’s security guards admitted two men posing as Boston police officers who went on to steal $500 million worth of art and collectibles. With no leads decades later, the event is the largest unsolved art theft in history.
Some of paintings were simply cut out of their frames. Those empty frames still hang on the wall, awaiting the return of their contents. The museum continues to offer a reward of $10 million for information leading to the recovery of the stolen items.