A spirited young society woman, Isabella Stewart came in 1860 from New York—where ladies were more commonly seen and heard than in Boston—to marry John Lowell Gardner, one of Boston's leading citizens. "Mrs. Jack" promptly set about becoming the most un-Bostonian of the Proper Bostonians. She decided to build the Venetian palazzo to hold her collected arts in an isolated corner of Boston's newest neighborhood. Her will stipulated that the building remain exactly as she left it—paintings, furniture, and the smallest object in a hall cabinet—and that is as it has remained. Today, it's probably America's most idiosyncratic treasure house.
Gardner's palazzo contains a trove of amazing paintings—including such masterpieces as Titian's Europa, Giotto's Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Piero della Francesca's Hercules, and John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo. Spanish leather panels, Renaissance hooded fireplaces, and Gothic tapestries
accent salons; eight balconies adorn the majestic Venetian courtyard. There's a Raphael Room, Spanish Cloister, Gothic Room, Chinese Loggia, and a magnificent Tapestry Room for concerts, where Gardner entertained Henry James and Edith Wharton. An adjacent gallery houses the works of participants in the museum's artist-in-residence program.
There are some conspicuously bare spots on the walls. On March 18, 1990, the Gardner was the target of a sensational art heist. Thieves disguised as police officers stole 12 works, including Vermeer's The Concert. To date, none of the art has been recovered, despite a $5-million reward. Because Mrs. Gardner's will prohibited substituting other works for any stolen art, empty expanses of wall identify spots where the paintings once hung.
A new addition to the museum opened in 2012. The Renzo Piano–designed building houses a music hall, exhibit space, classrooms, and conservation labs, where Gardner's works can be repaired and preserved.
If you've visited the MFA in the two days prior to your trip here, there's a $2 admission fee discount.
A charming quirk of the museum's admission policy waives entrance fees to anyone named Isabella.
Allot about two hours to tour the museum properly, and note that the collections generally appeal to a "grown-up" audience, so there isn't much for young children here.
If you're looking for a light lunch after your tour, visit Cafe G near the gift shop. The restaurant serves up quiches, soup, salads, and delicious desserts.