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  • Writer's pictureJoel Popadics

Isabellas Free...Forever

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

"Has the music room dissolved, this morning, in the sunshine? I felt last night as though I were in a Hans Anderson Fairy Tale, ready to go on a flying carpet at any moment," T.R. Sullivan, Jan. 10, 1902. (As quoted in

This past spring, we took a trip to Boston to celebrate my wife’s birthday. We did tourist things and took in all the sights. We walked along the Freedom Trail, had a guided tour of the USS Constitution and enjoyed a raucous recreation of the Boston Massacre. But, perhaps the best part of the weekend was our visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and because it was my wife's birthday, as is the policy of the museum, she got in for free!

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a remarkable patron of the arts. Her generous philanthropy, which protected the rights of children and animals, was far ahead of its time, as was her interdisciplinary vision. Her travel albums and correspondence speak to a vibrant and courageous life. Born in New York City in 1840, she was the daughter of David Stewart who made his fortune in the Irish linen trade. She collected art, traveled the world and was an avid Boston Red Sox fan. She built her museum on The Fenway in Boston, in the style of a 15th Century Venetian palace - complete with an indoor garden courtyard. She filled the building with light, watercolors, oils, pastels, manuscripts, furniture and all sorts of objects from her travels. Although the collection takes up three floors, it doesn’t overwhelm. You walk away inspired, not exhausted.

"A Tent in the Rockies" (15" x 20.5" ) 1916 watercolor by John Singer Sargent. Collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The crown jewel of the collection is “El Jaleo” a large oil by John Singer Sargent, in which light fractures, as in the intensity of the lived moment. I especially enjoyed the watercolors of Sargent, Anders Zorn, J. M. W. Turner and John La Farge. Seeing these works in person and experiencing her garden courtyard were the main reasons for our visit and nothing disappointed.

In 1990, several works of art were stolen including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer. Gardner willed that if any art should ever be stolen, it would never be replaced. Today, vacant spaces on the walls can be seen where the paintings were once displayed. You can watch a documentary about the caper on YouTube.

I highly recommend experiencing this museum and seeing her collection of watercolors the next time you are in Boston. They have a great website which will help you plan a visit.

Oh, I almost forget, if your name is Isabella you get in free…forever!

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