The Genteel
January 28, 2021


A view of the new central grand staircase in the new wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Photograph courtesy of Nic Lehoux).
Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1906
(Photograph courtesy of the
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum).

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) was a vibrant, fascinating woman whose interests included art, music, horse racing, and cheering on her beloved Boston Red Sox. Born into a wealthy New York family, Isabella Stewart was 20-years-old when she married John Lowell Gardner, Jr., scion of an old Boston Brahmin family. From then on, she would be known in the society pages as "Mrs. Jack". 

The couple took up residence in Venice at the Palazzo Barbaro for months at a time while visiting galleries, buying art and attending operas and theatre performances. On the Gardners' trips around the world, they amassed a priceless collection of 2,500 artifacts of statuary, art and decorative pieces from China, Japan, Egypt, France and Italy. Her works of art, dating from the 15th to the 19th century, include El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, The Death and the Assumption of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, Peter Paul Rubens' Portrait of Thomas Howell, 2nd Earl of Arundel, Portrait of Madame Auguste Manet by Edouard Manet and Titian's Europa to name a few. 

When Jack Gardner died in 1898, Isabella purchased land in Boston's Fens area and built her home, Fenway Court, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She spared no expense, hiring renowned Boston architect Willard Sears and was involved in every aspect of the building process; from instructing Sears to design it to resemble the Palazzo Barbaro, to climbing ladders to show how she wanted her paintings hung to working with Italian and Spanish designers in the selection of the floor tiles. 

This was not an easy job; we could not compete with the magic of Mrs. Gardner's palace.

On New Year's Day 1903, Isabella opened Fenway Court to the cream of Boston society. In the way she did everything, the opening was a gala with the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing in the music room, and guests sipping champagne while they mingled amidst her fabulous art. In 1914, she had the Tapestry Room built so she could display her collection of 16th century Flemish tapestries. Since the 1970's, the room has been used for lectures and concerts with cramped seating elbow to elbow.

On her death, Isabella bequeathed a million dollar endowment for the preservation of her museum with a restriction that no part of her collection could be changed. Through the years, the museum staff has worked feverishly to uphold this restraint. But in order for the museum to survive, it needed to grow. Since 1999, Anne Hawley, the Norma Jean Calderwood Director of the museum, has worked with architect Renzo Piano in overseeing the creation of an addition wing while honouring Mrs. Gardner's wishes. 

Stage level view of Calderwood
Hall in the new Renzo Piano
wing of the Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum (Photograph
courtesy of Nic

Today, the "palace", as the main museum is called, shines even more beautifully with the new Piano-designed 70,000 square foot wing. Just like Isabella did in building her museum, no expense was spared in the wing's design (US$114 million in total).  

At the January 19th opening, architect Renzo Piano talked about his work: "This was not an easy job; we could not compete with the magic of Mrs. Gardner's palace. The palace is a very fragile building that survived for a century; this new building will help it to survive for another century." Nothing in Isabella's museum was disturbed, Piano made the connection of the new wing to the palace seamlessly with a 50-foot long glass corridor.  He surrounded it with a beautiful landscape of American hornbeams and lacebark pines. 

Calderwood Hall Performance Center seats 300 in tiered balconies. The Alaskan white oak floors and yellow cedar walls allow the acoustics of the hall to embrace the performer - sharing the experience with the audience. Piano took into consideration the small theaters throughout Italy, particularly the Spoleto Theatre in Perugia, for their tiered effect when he and noted theatre designer, Yasuhisa Toyota, designed the hall. 

This wing doubles the space of the curatorial areas with an education studio, a multi-use learning space for people of all ages; the greenhouse with its rare plants is where landscape lectures will be held. The living room's floor to ceiling glass walls and minimalist furnishings designed by Piano offers an oasis for relaxing. The Tapestry Room has also been restored to its original grandeur. 

Evening exterior view of the
Special Exhibition Gallery in the
new wing of the Isabella
Stewart Gardner Museum 
(Photograph courtesy of Nic

For twenty years, the museum has presented an artist in residence program. Now it can honour those participating artists with exhibits of their work. The Special Exhibition Gallery, with 1,500 square feet of space and a glass wall measuring three stories high will host changing exhibits by contemporary artists. The opening exhibit, Tapestry, Radio On, is a series of abstracts in bold blues, greens, yellows and oranges by Scottish artist Victoria Morton, a former Gardner artist in residence. 

The small exhibit space that you pass through to get to Morton's exhibit is given over to works by former members of the artist in residence program. Of note is a beautiful but sad painting of Mrs. Gardner in her later years done by her great friend John Singer Sargent, the first artist to reside at Fenway Court. 

In designing the new wing, Piano displayed reverent sensitivity to Isabella's palace, placing the addition so that the palace is seen from every angle. He has paid homage to her and the magnificent Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, Boston MA 02115, 617-566-1401



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