Best Boston Tourism Tips

Old Masters and Modern Mystery
At the Gardner Museum Boston

Where it is: Fenway/Kenmore

It's reasonable to expect that the Gardner Museum Boston would be a traditional museum.

You don't enter by wardrobe and there are no signs of lions or witches, so how would you know that the doorway of the Gardner is actually a portal to a dreamy other world?

Tucked in the heart of Boston's Fenway, five minutes from a Starbucks, sits an American heiress's 15th century Venetian palace, stuffed to the rafters with some of the world's most valuable paintings, sculptures, antiquities, and decorative arts.

Titian's The Rape of Europa at the Gardner Museum Boston Titian's The Rape of Europa at the Gardner Museum Boston

If you had an extremely wealthy friend, from the right kind of family, headed by art-obsessed parents, and you were all living in an Edith Wharton novel, the Gardner is a good approximation of what wandering through that friend's home might be like.

This elegant little jewel of a museum holds over 2,500 hundred artworks over three floors that surround a verdant courtyard garden that blooms year round. A good portion of the works are by the hands of Old Masters like Rembrandt, Titian, and Vermeer.

Francesco Pesellino's Virgin and Child with a Swallow at the Gardner Museum Boston Francesco Pesellino's Virgin and Child with a Swallow at the Gardner Museum Boston

The heart of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum archive – access to which is granted by appointment only – is over 6,000 letters, mostly between Isabella Gardner and 1,000 correspondents. We're talking Henry Adams, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Sarah Bernhardt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and more, plus a few original Dante manuscripts for good measure.

Isabella Gardner, a glamorous, unconventional Boston socialite and philanthropist, built the collection with her family inheritance. She curated it herself with the aim of creating a more intimate experience of the artwork, to give the viewer a sense of what it would be like to experience it in a private home rather than a more formal museum setting.

The galleries are arranged mostly as the kinds of sitting rooms or studies you'd find in a grand house. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Boston feels less like a museum than like a home with an incalculable decorating budget.

Edouard Manet's Portrait of Madame Auguste Manet at the Gardner Museum Boston Edouard Manet's Portrait of Madame Auguste Manet at the Gardner Museum Boston

The museum's more than three hundred paintings, almost four hundred sculptures, and thousands of prints, drawings, manuscripts, and pieces of antiquity, are organized by geography, period and style: the Yellow Room, the Blue Room, the Short Gallery, the Gothic Room, etc.

In the Early Italian Room, you'll find spectacular works, some of them over 500 years old, like Fra Angelico's Death and Assumption of the Virgin and Francesco Pesellino's The Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death.

Sarcophagus: Revelers Gathering Grapes at the Gardner Museum Boston Sarcophagus: Revelers Gathering Grapes at the Gardner Museum Boston

In the Raphael Room you'll find Raphael's Pieta, Botticelli's surprising, evocative The Tragedy of Lucretia, and the Carlo Crivelli masterpiece, Saint George Slaying the Dragon.

In my opinion, Titian's The Rape of Europa alone is worth the price of admission to the Gardner.*

Former Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Peter Sutton called Europa "arguably the greatest painting in America." Peter Paul Rubens, the Renaissance master who gave us the "Rubenesque beauty," called it "the greatest painting in the world."

John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo at the Gardner Museum Boston John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo at the Gardner Museum Boston

(*The other is John Singer Sargent's moody, crackling El Jaleo, in the Spanish Cloister. Mesmerizing.)

Displayed in the Titian Room, the imposing canvas captures a frightening moment from a Greek myth in which the god Zeus takes the form of a bull, "seduces" Phoenician princess Europa, and whisks her away to Crete.

Europa is also a one-painting tutorial on why the works of High Renaissance Masters are so prized and command hundreds of millions of dollars. Titian creates a vision your eyeballs will try to eat, so rich and dynamic and emotional you can get a bit overwhelmed, trying to soak in the colors and brushstrokes, losing yourself in its almost tactile lushness.

It could take you weeks to savor all the amazing treasures here.

But the Isabella Gardner Museum doesn't just hold one of the richest fine art collections in the world. It also happens to be the site of the single largest property theft in history. You read that right: the largest property theft that has ever taken place.

Unlucky Thirteen

In the wee hours of St. Patrick's day in 1990, two thieves posing as Boston police, tricked a guard into admitting them, overpowered and bound both guards on duty, then proceeded to loot $500 million worth of artwork – with an emphasis on Dutch Masters – from the Gardener.

In a bizarre spree, they snapped centuries-old paintings from their frames and slashed them from their stretchers, damaging them and instantly lowering their value. Paint flecks from ancient, fragile paintings littered the floor below their newly vacant mountings.

Rembrandt's Self-Portrait, Aged 23 at the Gardner Museum Boston Rembrandt's Self-Portrait, Aged 23 at the Gardner Museum Boston – the perpetrators of the 1990 heist stole all the Rembrandts but this one, finding it too difficult to remove.

The take was 13 pieces of art, including three Rembrandts, one of which was Storm on the Sea of Galilee, his only known seascape. Police found evidence that the looters had also attempted to snatch Rembrandt's Self Portrait, but apparently – and luckily for the rest of us – it was too big. You can still show up at the Gardner any day and marvel at it – and its brush with death – up close.

The stolen works also included Vermeer's The Concert. Vermeers are among the rarest paintings on earth; the Dutch Master is believed to have completed no more than 60 works in his lifetime, only 36 of which survive. Some dealers estimate the value of The Concert to be as high as $300 million. (In 2011, the Royal Family of Qatar paid $250 million for Cezanne's The Card Players, so yes, that's a reasonable estimate.)

Vermeer's The Concert at the Gardner Museum Boston Vermeer's The Concert at the Gardner Museum Boston – this piece was stolen in the devastating 1990 theft; only its empty frame currently hangs in its original space.

You'll find a fuller description of the theft on the Gardner Museum Boston web site, but for the Gardner's most concise and powerful statement about the theft, visit the Dutch Room, where the empty frames from which the canvases were cut have never been moved. It's an eerie sight.

(To learn even more about the heist, including potential obstructions to the works being recovered, pick up a copy of The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser.)

And when you visit Europa, savor it not only because it's hypnotically beautiful, but because had the thieves been more discriminating, it also would be gone. Estimated to be worth $500 million, Europa is the single most valuable work in the museum.

Update: On March 13, 2013, the 23rd anniversary of the theft, the FBI announced it had "determined where the stolen art was transported in the years after the theft and that it knows the identity of the thieves."

A $5 million reward remains available for anyone who can provide accurate information about the current location of the stolen artwork.

The museum offers free admission to anyone named Isabella, and any visitor is given free admission on their birthday.

280 The Fenway, Boston, MA 02115; 617-566-1401 [Map]

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