Isabella Stewart Gardner is known as an eccentric and bold woman of her time. Gardner and her husband Jack had one son in 1863, who died from pneumonia at two years old. A year later, she miscarried a baby girl. After learning she could no longer bear children, Gardner started to experience extreme depression. Her doctor recommended travel as a coping mechanism. Gardner and her husband ventured all over the world, to places including Europe, Egypt, Turkey, and Asia. Gardner soon became passionate about collecting artwork from her journeys.
Following the death of her husband, Jack, it was Gardner’s main focus to build the a palace that she had envisioned with him to open as an art museum for the public. In 1898, she purchased a plot of land in the Fenway just a few blocks away, referring to the new building as the “Fenway Court.” The design of the Fenway Court was inspired by the Palazzo Barbaro, Gardner’s favorite place to stay in Venice, Italy. Four stories high with a rectangular footprint, the museum is topped off with a gable style glass skylight – the first of its kind – that encloses the courtyard of the museum from the harsh New England weather. Aiming for a more intimate experience than one would have in typical museums of her time, Gardner softened the interior with dim light and intricate textures. Gardner wanted her viewers to contemplate each work of art without preconceived notions, so she did not label most of it. She furthered this idea of discordance by mixing works from different parts of the world into the same room, instead of keeping them separate and organized by the places they are from.
Following Gardner’s death and at the request of her will, the museum has been preserved to stay true to her original design, with no artworks being moved or altered significantly. However, the museum suffered a massive robbery of thirteen works of art estimated to be worth $500 million in 1990. A rare painting by Vermeer, as well as Rembrandt’s only known seascape were among the paintings stolen from the museum. The thieves tricked security guards by dressing up as policemen to execute the heist. The robbery has still not been solved, with the FBI offering a reward of $5 million for any tips. All thirteen works of art remain missing from the museum to this day. Now, empty frames hang in the Dutch room gallery where the paintings were once displayed.
In 2012, Renzo Piano was commissioned to design a new wing to the museum. While the original wing holds the collection of art that Gardner had collected to further enhance the intended “personal confrontation with art”, the new expansion wing aims to create the same intimacy with art in the new gallery and the Calderwood Hall performance space. The strong presence of glass on the first floor in the new wing accentuates the ground connection to the old wing. The placement of the glass corridor on the ground floor as opposed to a higher level is intended to represent that light connection between the two wings. This passageway from building to building has been referred to as “the Link” by Anna Hawley. Hawley states that “it is a rite of passage, an acknowledgement that the palace is a place that must be approached, not entered too directly.” This transition of materiality and light intensity into the original museum allows the experience to be much greater as a procession through spaces, and the moment of entry becomes a significant moment in the museum.