Isabella Gardner Builds a Museum

Alan Chong, William and Lia Poorvu Curator of Collections

Willard Sears, Sketch for the Courtyard of the Gardner Museum, 1899. Watercolor. © Gardner Museum.

Isabella Gardner at the museum construction site, 1900. Photograph. © Gardner Museum.

Setting columns around the museum courtyard, 1900. Photograph probably by Isabella Gardner. © Gardner Museum.

Alan Chong, William and Lia Poorvu Curator of Collections, reflects on Isabella Gardner as client, designer, and construction site overseer.

Pilings and scaffolding rise from the muddy earth near the Fens in Boston. The architect struggles to meet his client’s specific demands as the carefully designed museum takes shape in the narrow lot.

This scene could be today, as the new wing of the Gardner Museum designed by Renzo Piano takes shape behind the century-old original building. But in fact it is 1900, when Isabella Gardner carefully supervised every detail of her museum, from its site and arrangement, to the placement of each column and window. She wrote to a friend in 1902, “I go daily, dinner pail in hand, to my Fenway Court work.” And it was Isabella, acting virtually alone, who installed the treasures of her collection.

First Steps

The Gardner Museum (originally called Fenway Court) was not Isabella Gardner’s first foray into architecture and design. Shortly after her marriage to Jack Gardner in 1860, her father bought the newlyweds a house on Beacon Street, at the edge of reclaimed land in the Back Bay. Within a few years, Isabella had acquired the neighboring house and knocked through the dividing walls to create a complex network of rooms.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Isabella Gardner’s great passions were travel and music. She displayed her souvenirs in her home and also created a music room for small recitals. As she became friendly with artists like James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, she added their work to her decor. And after she began collecting art more seriously in the 1890s, her domestic interiors looked more and more like galleries in a museum.

In 1884, Jack Gardner inherited Green Hill, his family’s house in Brookline, Massachusetts. There, Isabella set about designing expansive new gardens as well as a new conservatory. Isabella’s concern with incorporating glazed garden spaces into her living spaces would find full expression later in the Gardner Museum.

A Private Museum

Gardner’s acquisition of important paintings by Titian, Botticelli, Rembrandt, and Rubens convinced her to create a small private museum. At first, they planned to rebuild their house in the center of Boston. After Jack Gardner’s unexpected death in 1898, Isabella began to work on the project with urgency. She asked Willard Sears, a local architect who often worked for the Gardner family, to draw up plans for a museum. However, a few days later, she announced that she had purchased newly reclaimed land around the Fens for her museum. It would be the first structure in an empty area that had only recently been laid out by Frederick Olmsted, and thus the Gardner Museum was integrated into the new system of urban parks in Boston.

Willard Sears had designed the New South Church near Copley Square and the Cyclorama in the South End, but he seemed an unimaginative choice for a very personal museum. Jack Gardner had described him in 1885: “I at present rather incline to Cummings and Sears, although I do not like their taste ... but I think our chance for economy with sufficiently good work and good management, and attention to business is perhaps better with Sears than anybody. And we might prevent the taste being glaringly offensive.” The familiar and dull efficiency of Willard Sears must have suited Isabella: she would be able to make all of the real design decisions about her museum.

The architect kept a diary during construction and it documents a most demanding client. Isabella insisted on choosing the location of every architectural element. As arches were erected, she would change her mind and have them entirely redone. And she ordered the floor layers dismissed for mimicking her. Isabella Gardner may have been an exceeding difficult client, but the resultant museum is stamped indelibly with her personality.

The spaces in Gardner’s museum had many different functions and were decorated in various styles. The glass-roofed courtyard was filled with important pieces of ancient sculpture and was also a garden in perpetual bloom. The courtyard is also the unifying structure of the museum since the entrance, stairways, and most of the galleries open onto it. The museum originally included a Music Hall (removed in 1914), while Gardner herself kept an apartment for herself on the top floor. Each of the galleries had a principal theme (for example, Dutch, Gothic, and Chinese art), but Gardner mingled works in different media, and was unafraid to add objects from other cultures and periods to enhance the visual delight of the rooms. This highly personal installation of art echoes the architecture of the museum itself which is a synthesis of Venetian, Gothic, and contemporary American sources. Indeed the seamless connections between garden, architecture, interior decoration, and art object make the Gardner Museum continually fascinating.


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