Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Iconic Boston Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Iconic Boston Museum

Though not an industrialist or robber baron by definition, Isabella Gardner was a great patron and curator of the arts. With a large inheritance, a love of fine sculpture, textiles and paintings, Isabella (or Belle in Boston society), was a great American art collector, philanthropist and patron of education.

Born in 1840, during the time of the great robber barons, Isabella Stewart Gardner was Boston high society royalty, often written about in tabloids for her idiosyncratic personality and unconventional tastes.

In 1874, Isabella and her husband traveled extensively through the Middle East and Europe, collecting impressive art and other oddities, and developing a great love for curating art.

Gardner began collecting in earnest after receiving a large inheritance from her father in 1891. When Isabella acquired a Botticelli in 1894, she became the first American to curate a painting by the Renaissance master.

After her husband John L. Gardner’s death in 1898, Isabella Gardner purchased land for the museum that would house their collection in Boston’s Fenway area. With her supervision over design aspects of the museum, Gardner hired architect Willard T. Sears to build the structure in the reflection of the Renaissance palaces of Venice, Italy.

After its completion, Isabella spent twelve months on the installation of her pieces to create the perfect ambiance. Using mixed media, furniture, textiles and various trinkets bought from her travels with her husband, she hand-picked where each piece would be assembled.

Titian's masterpiece "The Rape of Europa"

Titian’s masterpiece “The Rape of Europa”

The structure itself surrounds a glass-encased garden, which was the first of its kind in the United States. The second floor displays an impressive John Singer Sargent (who was a close personal friend) painting titled El Jaleo on the first floor with extensive tapestries on the second floor. In the Titian Room, Titian’s masterpiece The Rape of Europa, one of the most famous pieces of art in the museum, hangs above a piece of fabric cut from one of Isabella’s famous gowns.

The museum opened on January 1, 1903 with a grand celebration featuring a performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a decadent menu of champagne and pastries.

Gardner Museum in Boston

Gardner Museum in Boston

During Gardner’s lifetime, she welcomed artists, performers, and scholars to Fenway Court including John Singer Sargent, Charles Martin Loeffler, and Ruth St. Denis. Today, the museum’s contemporary artist-in-residence program, courtyard garden displays, concerts, and innovative education programs continue Isabella Gardner’s legacy.

Upon her death in 1924, she left an endowment of $1 million which stipulated that her collection be permanently exhibited “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever”.

Gardner lived on the fourth floor when in residence at the museum. After her death, the fourth floor served for many years as residence for the museum’s director; more recently it has been converted for use as museum offices.

How the Robber Barons Forged the Great American Art Collector: Part III – The Frick Collection

How the Robber Barons Forged the Great American Art Collector: Part III – The Frick Collection

Henry Clay Frick was an American industrialist, financier and curator of art. His patronage eventually led to a large collection of old master paintings and furniture, a park and many other contributions for the public. Despite all his posthumous donations, he was never able to shake his moniker as “the most hated man in America.”

Robber Baron Frick

Henry Clay Frick

Frick’s immense wealth came through several successful endeavors throughout his life, including H.C. Frick & Company, Carnegie Steel and his further involvement in the evolution of the steel industry in the United States. Once his wealth was amassed, Frick turned his sights to art collecting as soon as his net worth began to grow. His collection grew to staggering heights. Today, a large portion of the collection remains in his former Pittsburgh residence, Clayton, that serves as part of the Frick Art & Historical Center.

The acclaimed New York Frick Museum started as his Manhattan mansion, which is now a city landmark. The architectural beauty would be Frick’s home until his passing in 1919. Upon his death, Frick willed the house and all its valuable objects as a museum for the public. However, his widow Adelaide continued to live in the mansion with her daughter until her passing in 1931. Finally, Frick’s vision for his collection would begin to reach fruition.

After Adelaide’s passing, the conversion began with architect John Russell Pope enhancing the mansion for the public. After four years of renovating, the Frick Collection opened to the public in December 1935.

Since its opening, the collection continues to receive praise of one of the country’s premiere small art museums. The collection consists of exquisite paintings, sculptures and porcelain art in addition to the beautiful furniture across six galleries on the property. Much of Frick’s design plans remain intact. To enhance the collection and public appeal, the collection hosts temporary exhibitions as well.

Further expansions of the museum took place in 1977 and in 2011.

Next week, Part IV: The Collection of Andrew Carnegie