Isabella Stewart Gardner

Today is the 25th anniversary of the notorious heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. On March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised at Boston police officers convinced a guard that they were responding to a call. He broke protocol by letting them in. The thieves tied up the two guards on duty and spent 81 minutes in the museum. They made off with two Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, a Degas, and several other objects. This is considered the largest theft in history and the FBI maintains an active investigation. Public speculation has considered everyone from Whitey Bulger to the security guard who opened the door for the supposed police officers.

But enough about that. Instead, let’s focus on Isabella Stewart Gardner, the woman. Mrs. Gardner, as she is known at the museum, suffered from depression after the death of her young son in 1865. Her doctor suggested travel as a cure, and over the next decades, Mrs. Gardner and her husband, Jack, traveled to England, France, Japan, Cambodia, India, Russia, and, her favorite, Venice, Italy.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice Zorn
Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894, Anders Zorn, Oil on canvas

Mrs. Gardner began collecting art during her travels and in 1903 she helped design what was known as Fenway Court, a building modeled after a Venetian palace. She installed her collections there and opened it to the public. Today it is still open as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

isabella stewart gardner john singer sargent
Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner. 1888:
John Singer Sargent

Mrs. Gardner knew what she wanted and wasn’t shy about asking for it, whether it was installing a palace in a then-desolate part of Boston (no Fenway Park or Museum of Fine Arts in that neighborhood when Mrs. Gardner chose it), wearing a Red Sox bandanna to a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance, or hosting artists and musicians who were not considered proper for Boston society. John Singer Sargent painted a portrait of her that was thought to be scandalous.  That plunging neckline! That small waist, encircled by pearls! And, is that a halo around her head? Mrs. Garnder’s husband reportedly asked her not to display it until after his death. She obliged, but today you can see it on the museum’s third floor.

In short, Mrs. Gardner was and remains bad ass, and I wish I could have been invited to the champagne and donut party that opened the museum on New Years’ Day in 1903.

All images via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where you can learn more about Mrs. Gardner and the theft.

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