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Posts Tagged ‘Isabella Stewart Gardner’

Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends moved away (sniff), and we made a serious effort to soak up some time together before she left town. One afternoon in late June, she texted with a question: would I like to join her and her daughter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that week? Of course, the answer was yes.

The Gardner is one of my favorite semi-hidden Boston gems; it’s tucked away in the Fenway neighborhood, built around a central courtyard that’s full of lush plantings year-round. Mrs. Gardner, as the docents still call her, was an avid collector of art, furniture and curiosities, from around the world. Her acquisitions are still arranged just as she specified – in multilayered, sometimes overwhelming splendor – at the mansion/museum she called Fenway Court.

The first few times I went to the Gardner, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of art: there are thousands of objects, including paintings, textiles, furniture, dishes, sculptures, sketches, letters, tapestries and who knows what else. It took me a while to realize the goal isn’t to see or learn about everything: it’s to walk through and experience the total effect, the layers of history and different origin stories and artistic styles, all brought together by one woman’s passion for collecting. These days, I wander through, pausing when a piece catches my eye, but less focused on the details than on the whole.

This time was different, for several reasons: first, we enjoyed a snack at the cafe before our museum tour. I’d never been to the (relatively) new Cafe G before, but I have to say, the citrus pound cake was delicious (and felt fancy).

The three of us wandered around, starting at the top floor of the museum (for something different) and winding our way back down to the ground floor. I loved being there with 12-year-old Lucy, who noticed things I’d never have picked up on, and asked excellent questions (my favorite: “What would you want to ask Isabella, if you could?”).

In light of the current conversations around artistic objects, their provenance, and the recent encouraging trend of museums considering returning stolen objects, I also wondered about the collection at the Gardner. Where did all these objects come from? Who brought them to Isabella? Were they given freely (in exchange for money, of course) or stolen from their original homes? What happened to the people, buildings and communities who created them? I never used to consider these questions when I visited museums, but I am thinking about so many things differently now. (I am also, as ever, curious about the heist in 1990, which has never yet been solved.)

Every time I go to the Gardner, I find myself drawn to the windows in every room, gazing out onto the courtyard, which I find both restful and beautiful. (I’ve never seen the famous nasturtium plantings there, but it’s on my list for this winter.) Mostly, I was grateful to share a lovely afternoon with two women I love, in a place we all enjoy.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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Tucked away on a side street near the Fens, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of Boston’s hidden gems. I’ve been there a few times, with my parents or visiting friends, but I hadn’t been back in several years.

The museum is open late on Thursdays, with jazz and samba music winding through the galleries and evocative shadows dancing in the corners. I spent the evening there last night with someone dear to me who had never been before (though he’s lived in Boston for years).

We wandered through the galleries, marveling at intricate tapestries, delicate handmade lace, elaborate marble statues and tile work, and gorgeous paintings. In each room, I always end up at the windows, gazing down into the central courtyard, which is amazing from every angle.

The museum is a different place at night: arranged exactly as it is in the daytime, but with more mystery in its corners. We wondered about the origins of some pieces, and noted a few empty frames (which held the pieces stolen in the Gardner’s 1990 heist). Different details catch my eye every time: a medieval portrait of an anonymous woman, an impressionist painting of gladioli, a bronze sculpture of Diana the huntress.

There’s far too much art to take in all at once, and so you don’t have to try, which is what I love about the Gardner: you can simply wander through and experience the art and the place.

I’d never spent an evening at the Gardner before: I’d always been on a weekend afternoon, with the attendant crowds (and sunshine pouring through the skylight). But this was a lovely way to enjoy a beautiful space. I can see more evenings there in my future.

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isabella stewart gardner museum courtyard boston

On a frigid (but sunny) Saturday in February, I met my friend Kristin in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston. During a previous outing, she’d mentioned the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which sits just around the corner from the Museum of Fine Arts, tucked between it and Simmons College.

“I’ve never been there,” she said. “Is it cool?”

My response? “We’re going.”

isabella stewart gardner museum courtyard statue boston

The Gardner is the former home of its namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner – a Boston socialite and heiress whose art collection fills three floors of gorgeous, airy rooms. She collected everything: paintings, statuary, delicate handmade lace, elaborate candlesticks, furniture from various countries and periods. Leather-bound books and letters from famous people fill glass-fronted cases, and the walls are hung with tapestries, paintings and mirrors.

Mrs. Gardner (that’s what the museum guides call her) was a magpie, but a wealthy one with good taste. As specified in her will, the collection is left as she arranged it (with the exception of 13 pieces stolen in 1990, in one of the biggest unsolved art heists ever).

The central courtyard is the only part of the museum you’re allowed to photograph – and it’s stunning. Although the art in every room is amazing, I always find myself walking over to the windows to look out into the courtyard, again and again. The roof is enclosed by skylights, which give it a greenhouse feel. (Those orchids!)

gardner museum courtyard blue sky

I’ve been to the Gardner several times – it’s a great place to take friends who come to visit. But it’s nearly impossible to see everything (the rooms are crammed), so I’m always happy to go back.

We wandered the rooms, reading some of the guide cards that provide information about the pieces, and soaking up the atmosphere. A flautist stood by the piano in one of the upstairs galleries, and her music, like liquid silver, followed us all the way down the hall.

I don’t consider myself an art aficionado. But I will always say yes to an afternoon spent among beautiful things, with a good friend. Mrs. Gardner’s museum is the perfect place to spend such an afternoon.

Have you been to the Gardner Museum? Any favorite museums where you live?

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