These days it feels like Boston has transformed
into an arctic tundra, but one historical institution provides some relief from the winter doldrums.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood is hometo a spectacular indoor courtyard that blooms year-round, with horticulture installations changing six times a year to reflect seasonal flowers and greenery. The courtyard lies in the center of a four-story, 18th century building, designed to look like anancient Venetian palazzo.
While the courtyard is a stunning centerpiece complete with glass ceiling (the first built in Boston), gravel walkways, and trickling fountains, the museum is also home to a substantial and impressive art collection. Botticelli, Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, Sargent, Manet and Degas grace the walls, but not in the way you might be used to. That’s because the museum’
s founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner, was anything but a typical collector.
Born in New York City on April 14th, 1840, to David Stewart, a wealthy merchant, and Adelia Smith, Gardner was educated in private schools in New York and Paris. While studying in Paris, she was introduced to Jack Lowell Gardner, the brother of her schoolmate and friend, Julia Gardner. The two eventually married and settled in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.
After the death of their son from pneumonia at the age of two, a doctor suggested that the Gardner’s journey through Europe to raise their spirits. That trip marked the beginning of a love affair with art and travel that led the Gardners to make plans for a building to house some of the objects they had collected during their travels. Thus, the idea for Fenway Court was born.
Although the Gardners resided in the palace, in a much more modest apartment on the fourth floor, they intended for the first three levels to be open to the public as a museum. Gardner personally installed the collection, arranging objects, paintings and textiles in inventive and intricate displays. For this reason, the galleries evoke the feeling of someone’s personal home more so than a museum.
The Titian Room on the third floor is sumptuous, with red silk textile covering the walls, gilded 18th century Italian chairs, and a massive, sweeping painting entitled The Rape of Europa by the Italian artist Titian. A floor to ceiling window and small stone balcony open up to the indoor courtyard below. The museum’s lighting is kept dim to preserve the art and no cell
phone use is allowed. Aside from the sound of water trickling through the fountains, the galleries are almost silent.
A morning visit is the best way to view the collection, with natural light flooding the galleries and providing the best condition to view the works. On the third thursday of every month, however, the museum remains open until 8pm and the galleries take on an entirely different feel. With the natural light gone, the museum is are dim, the only light coming from torchieres and lanterns. If only for an evening, you can forget the snow covered, icy world outside and imagine yourself transported back to ancient Venice.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11am-5pm, every third Tursday from 11am-8pm. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $5 for students with current I.D.. Children under 18 are admitted free with a parent or guardian.