Monday, February 24, 2014

A Day At The Museum: Oh, You Isabella

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

What took me so long? I finally visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston this weekend and it did not disappoint. I've wanted to visit for years, but it just hadn't happened until my sister sent me a postcard about a month ago, that she had gotten there on her last visit. The courtyard looked so utterly peaceful. It was beckoning.

When my sister asked if I wanted to go in for a visit and stay overnight, of course I said yes.

We were planning to visit on Saturday, but when we got to beantown, it was so unbelievably nice out we decided to save the museum for Sunday so we could walk around town and enjoy the weather.  We made the right choice. Sunday was still warm, but not as sunny. The perfect day for the museum.

We were greeted by Canada geese pecking on grass.......Boston had much less snow than we do.  A pretty welcome sight after the last week of back to back to back storms.

For those of you who have never heard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, it was conceived, created and the permanent collection was curated by the woman herself, Isabella Stewart Gardner.  I'd hazard a guess that she is one of the most philanthropic art supporters to have ever lived, certainly in the United States.  She was not only a collector, but understood the importance of sharing the art she collected with others.  When her collection became too large for the home on Beacon Hill that she shared with her husband Jack, they discussed dreams of creating a museum. Upon his death, Isabella made it her mission to make it happen, purchasing marshy land in the Fenway area of Boston and transforming it.  She hired an architect Willard T. Sears to build what she envisioned.  She had very specific ideas of what she wanted the museum to look like, inspired by the beautiful renaissance palaces of Venice.  It opened in 1903.

Years later the new addition was built, which includes the greenhouses that support the amazing inner courtyard.  The museum entrance is here, and it is quite a juxtaposition to the original building that houses the collection.

Once in the museum, unfortunately pictures are not allowed (though sketching is and I will be bringing a pad next visit). Part of the reason I'm sure is for conservation of the works of art, but also the museum suffered one of the most notorious art thefts of all time 23 years ago- with works of Rembrandt, Degas, Vermeer and others being stolen. The works have yet to be recovered.

As you leave the entrance area and into the museum,  you move through low arched cloisters that  surround the courtyard.  The courtyard itself is truly a work of art.

The feeling of peace and calm the courtyard exudes can't be over emphasized.  I could sit and look at it for hours.

Surrounding the courtyard are all the galleries which cover an amazing amount of art.

Each room focuses on a different collection.  Two of my favorite rooms were the Spanish Cloister which housed El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent and if I had to pick one, would be my favorite work of art at the museum. It's big and takes up one entire end of the cloister.  It is surrounded by a moorish arch that Mrs. Gardner had built just for that purpose.

Breathtaking and incredibly impressive. So much so that I had to stop and view it from the other end of the cloister again on the way out.

I got myself a little magnet of it in the gift shop as well as some postcards of other pieces I loved of Isabella, and pictures of the courtyard.

The top right portrait of Isabella was done by her friend Anders Zorn, who with his wife, was vacationing with the Gardners in Venice. Isabella was stepping back in from the balcony through glass doors with a fireworks display lighting up the sky behind her and announcing to those present that they 'must come to the balcony to see the fireworks as they were too beautiful to miss'.  The color of the floor in the painting was amazing. The most incredible peacock blue which is not done justice on the postcard I'm afraid.  The portrait of her on the right is by her other friend Sargent, a watercolor of her at a later time, looking quite ethereal all wrapped in white.

I always find it an incredible and inspiring experience to visit a museum and be in close proximity to works of art so many people have admired.  As I exited one of the rooms, just at the door was a lovely ballerina sketch by Degas, not a foot from me.  

All and all a memorable art experience. I came away completely enthralled with not only the building itself and the art it holds, but Isabella who in addition to being a sincere philanthropist was also quite a character who served as frequent fodder for the gossip columns (one famous story is of Isabella attending the Boston Symphony Orchestra donning a headband of sorts with 'Oh, You Red Sox on it, which was quite scandalous at the time).  I'll be reading more about this amazing woman, to be sure, as well as revisiting the dream she not only envisioned, but brought to life for others to enjoy.

More on my Boston visit this week on the muse, including the answer to 'Can a bear and monkey play together and get along?'.

Ciao for now,



  1. What a beautiful place! Thanks for sharing.

    1. incredible art, beautiful landscaping, truly peaceful

  2. Replies
    1. There were other gossip scandals too and apparently, even one of the portraits sargent painted of her showed too much skin for her husband (really not a lot of skin, certainly by today's standards). he asked her not to show it in public again until after his death.

  3. Both the art in and the architecture of the museum look amazing! And how awesome to see El Jaleo in real life (sorry, I'm some sort of art-groupie, things like this gets me all excited...).

    1. ok, my sister was so funny because she said- oh well I'll just say 'isn't that nice' and you'll stand there gazing. so I commpletely understand. The spanish cloister that it was in was so impressive. the floor tile, the wall tile, the moorish arch, the chinese cloister running along it. when you walk in you're right up close to El Jaleo. but when you walk to the other end of the cloister and turn around and see it framed by the arch.......swoon. the museum had just opened and when we stepped up to the painting - we didn't realize it but it's light wasn't on. then a member of the staff stepped into the room, turned the light on and it was like watching fireworks........"ooooooooo!!!!'. amazing.


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