Masterpieces to Come ‘Off the Wall’ at the Gardner Museum

They'll be showcased in the new wing in a 'once-in-a-lifetime' exhibition.

off the wall gardner museum

An upcoming exhibition will shed new light on Isabella Stewart Gardner and her collection. / From left: ‘Self-Portrait, Aged 23’ by Rembrandt van Rijn; ‘Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice’ by Anders Zorn. / Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The visitor experience in the historic palace of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains just as its namesake had meticulously designed it more than a century ago.

The collection and its installation remains unchanged, with pieces rarely removed from their exact spots, save for in use of conservation efforts, scholarship, or highly selective loans. The galleries lack wall labels, and many works aren’t placed at eye level, prompting visitors to crane their necks and look over pieces of furniture to see.

“Mrs. Gardner really wanted people to have their ‘aha’ moments, to really fall in love with the works of art,” says Christina Nielsen, the museum’s curator of the collection. “There’s dynamism for anyone’s visit, discoveries that individuals can make.”

But in March, in what Nielsen calls “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” 25 works will be moved from the second floor of the historic palace to the state-of-the-art Hostetter Gallery on the second floor of the Gardner’s new wing, to be exhibited in controlled lighting and accompanied by wall texts.

The idea was initially inspired by the need to take the historic second floor off view to make way for an extensive roof project—itself prompted by the historic snowfall of last winter—but has grown to give Nielsen a chance to flex her curatorial muscles and shed new light on a fixed collection.

“Pulling these pictures out, putting them in this gallery for a short period of time will radically alter the way people look at each of the individual works,” she says. “And also how they think about what the collection means and what it meant in [Mrs. Gardner’s] time.”

Traditionally, the museum only takes one hallmark piece off the walls of the historic galleries at a time.

“Her will does dictate that we can’t change the way a particular installation looks. When we take something out, there’s an empty spot on the wall,” Nielsen explains. “We have to think very carefully about when we want to do that.”

With the roof project, Nielsen and her colleagues took the opportunity to place works on view in another part of the museum instead of storing them away. As a precaution, they ran the plan by the attorney general, who double-checked Mrs. Gardner’s will and granted permission.

The 25 works in the exhibition, titled “Off the Wall: Gardner and Her Masterpieces,” include some of the most renowned in the collection—paintings and drawings by Rembrandt, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rubens, and Raphael, to name a few.

“It was a real treat, kind of like going shopping in my own museum,” says Nielsen of the selection process, for which she enlisted the help of assistant curator Nathaniel Silver. “And I can tell you it took about five minutes.”

Put together, the works present premier examples of art from the Renaissance to the Rococo, as well as showcase Mrs. Gardner’s relentless pursuit of quality.

“There’s the thrill of the chase aspect because she’s beating out other collectors. She’s beating out large museums. She’s in competition with the Louvre occasionally and the National Gallery in London—and she wins!” says Nielsen, elaborating that Mrs. Gardner had cleverly outbid the two institutions for Vermeer’s “The Concert,” the work that would’ve topped the curator’s list for this exhibition, but hasn’t yet been returned since the 1990 heist.

Mrs. Gardner’s persona will further be showcased in a part of the exhibition that will reside in a small gallery off the courtyard in the historic building. It had originally been her archival space, which she often opened up for public viewing, but was transformed in the 1970s, when museum attendance grew, to make way for a coat check.

Now, with amenities taken care of in the new wing, it’s being reclaimed as a gallery, which will showcase letters and photographs that will tell the story of Mrs. Gardner as a collector, traveler, and networker. Additionally, “Off the Wall” will be accompanied by a responsive-design microsite that will share stories of her chase for four particular acquisitions.

“As a young girl, she had visited museums in Europe and felt very moved by them, and I think she really wanted to share an experience like that with people in this community,” says Nielsen.

Although “Off the Wall” is a temporary exhibition, Nielsen hopes it will have a lasting effect on its visitors.

“You can come and see [the works] anew during the run of the exhibition, and then when they go back on view in the palace, at the end of the project, you can come back and see them again,” she says. “Your perception of them will be changed forever.”

“Off the Wall: Gardner and Her Masterpieces” will be on view March 10 through August 15, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, Boston,