Unique Creation of One Woman’s Personal Taste
Beantown is a gem of a museum town. The city’s heavyweight, the Museum of Fine Arts, is one of the finest in the nation, particularly prized for its unrivaled collection of Asian and Japanese art. Among the more intimate museums, however, the small, exquisite Gardner Museum is a standout, housing an idiosyncratic collection of European, Asian, and American art that’s large enough to exhaust any museumgoer.
In the 1890s, the fiercely individualistic and wealthy Mrs. Gardner called upon art historian Bernard Berenson to help her amass one of America’s most important private collections, which she opened to the public in 1903 with more than 2,500 objects, including works by Giotto, Raphael, Rembrandt, and the only Piero della Francesca fresco outside Italy. The museum’s highlight is arguably Titian’s Europa, long considered one of the finest Italian paintings in America.
A John Singer Sargent portrait of Gardner presides over the museum today, but that’s not the only way in which her influence remains known: Provisions of her will specify that the collection be held in permanent trust for the “education and enjoyment of the public forever.”
What that means is that the museum’s home – an ersatz 15th-century-style Venetian palazzo built in 1900, and known as Fenway Court when Mrs. Gardner lived here – remains exactly as “Mrs. Jack” left it when she died in 1924: a haphazardly plotted mosaic of eclectic Victorian clutter, its art galleries surrounding a four-story skylit courtyard filled with blooming flowers and statuary and ringed with tall windows on every level.