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The Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum: Curious Curating and Stolen Art

By: Jacqueline Hampshire

Art gallery, meets garden, meets cabinet of curiosities at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum. The eclectic mix of art and artifacts housed at Fenway Court in Boston demonstrates Stewart’s impressive collection as well as her creative vision for its display.

As we walked around the multi-story mansion and its iconic Venetian courtyard, the term “organized chaos” came to mind.  The Stewart Gardiner is the anti-white cube.

Each room displays a range of artworks and decorative objects. Renaissance altarpieces are arranged salon-style among Chinese bronze works and Islamic ceramics. Though Isabella Stewart Gardiner was assisted throughout much of her collecting career, most curatorial decisions were her own. 

Photo Credit: Catherine Lariviére

As my friend Maddie put it, the museum allows you to “see through the eyes of someone else”.  Gardiner’s strange and deliberate positioning of artworks mixing time periods and locations is intimate and personal. The experience felt more like reading a diary than visiting a museum.  

In one room Gardiner placed a segment of a medieval altarpiece in front of a floral fabric that matched flowers held in the saint’s hands. The entire museum is curated in this way.  Gardiner appears to have followed very few rules and instead embraced the subjectivity of curating, an important aspect of the profession often hidden by the austere gallery setting.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary 1335-40

The Heist

When I told my father I was going to the ISGM his response was “enjoy what’s left of it!” 

On the morning of March 18th 1990 two men disguised as police officers entered the museum and stole 13 works of art valued at around 500 million dollars. Among the stolen works was a Rembrandt as well as Vermeer’s The Concert, a work that Gardiner acquired by outbidding the Louvre. Today empty frames hang as ghostly reminders of the missing works. The heist, which was the largest theft of private property in history, has become a part of the museums story, and ironically, an attraction. Gallery-goers seemed just as enthralled with the empty frames and accompanying mystery as they would have been by a Vermeer. Though the thought of lost art is distressing, I admit I was captivated by the movie-worthy art heist. Where are they now? Who has a Vermeer hanging on their living room wall?

When Isabella Stewart Gardiner died in 1924 her will stipulated that the collection was to remain as she had curated it, each item in its place.  

As we stood looking at the empty frames we wondered what Isabella Stewart Gardiner would do?  

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