Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Venetian Mansion in the Heart of Boston

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has been on my list of places to visit in Boston for years, but until now I had never been. I am lucky to have supportive friends & family that are interested in visiting these places with me, and this blog is a good excuse to do so.  I can’t believe I waited so long to visit this museum!

By no means do I have much knowledge of art or artists, and really need a guide of sorts to truly appreciate artwork. They do have audio guides available, which I may go back at some time and utilize, but we were with friends and I wanted it to be a bit more of a social visit. So, during this visit I was mainly focused on the architectural and decor elements – and there was plenty of that to go around!

Historical Highlights

  • Isabella Stewart was born to a wealthy family in New York City, the daughter of a wealthy linen-merchant, and who were  able to trace their family lineage back to the infamous Stewarts of Scotland (a la Outlander for me!).  At an early age through her schooling she was exposed to many different forms of art, dance and music and grew to love it.
  • While attending school in Paris, she visited Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, which was a private art collection turned public display in a home with different rooms that reflected the feeling and decor of the art on display. It is said that after her visit to this museum, she indicated that if she ever were to inherit money, she would want to build a similar house and showcase artwork for the public to enjoy. Turns out she did just that.
  • While in Europe, she met Julia Gardner, of the Gardner family in Boston. Isabella was then introduced to John “Jack” Gardner, Julia’s brother, and they wed in April 1860 and shortly thereafter moved to Boston.
  • After the death of Jack & Isabella’s only son at the age of two, Isabella fell into a deep depression and doctors suggested a trip to Europe to lift her spirits. In 1874 they start traveling regularly, and spent the majority of the next ten years almost solely out of the country. Her favorite destination? Venice, Italy and I can’t say I disagree – it’s a magical, magical place.
  • In 1891 Isabella’s father passed away, leaving her an inheritance of $1.5 million dollars, allowing her to start seriously collecting art. Isabella & Jack quickly amassed a collection of paintings, statues, tapestries, photographs, silver, ceramics, manuscripts, and even different architectural elements like stained glass, mantelpeices and doors.
  • By 1896, The Gardner home on Beacon Street in the Back Bay of Boston was getting too small to house their collection, which now contained pieces from world renowned artists such as Rembrandt & Botecelli (the first Botecelli in America!). Sadly, Jack died suddenly in 1896, and Isabella moved forward with their shared dream of a large home that could display their artwork, but that would be open to the public to enjoy.
  • After working diligently with architect Williard T. Sears to build a Venetian Palace in the nearly empty Fenway area, she spent a full year arranging and placing the artwork within the mansion. She lived on the fourth floor of the mansion (unfortunately not open to the public, and now home to resident artists), but spent much of her time in the lower three floors which contained the gallery rooms. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened January 1, 1903.
  • Isabella Stewart Gardner passed away in 1924, leaving an endowment of $1 million to the musuem, with the stipulation that the permanent collection not be altered.  Her legacy lives on today, as the museum houses her original collection (aside from, of course, the famous Art heist that occurred here in 1990 – in which their is still a reward out for the return of the pieces!) but also continues to bring in different rotating exhibitions.

Favorite Spots

Courtyard

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This is an obvious choice, as it really the first “room” you step into once entering the Palace, but it’s a show stopper. Located in the center of the home, it is another nod to her favorite European city, Venice. Featuring mosaic tiles with Medusa in the center,  fountains, sculptures and plants & flowers that are rotated nine times a year, this truly is a gorgeous centerpiece to the museum. It also was built from a functional standpoint, as the courtyard was a vehicle for light in each of the rooms, and many pieces of art are arranged in such a way that this courtyard light enhances their beauty. You get a view of the courtyard from almost every room on every floor with their windows & balconies, and is something that you will rush to see from all the different angles as you tour the rooms.

Veronese Room 

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This room is located on the third floor, and immediately upon entering your eyes are drawn to the hugely oversized fireplace and then up to the ceiling, where you find The Coronation of Hebe by the Studio of Paolo Veronese, so large and so detailed that no photo could ever do it justice (or capture it all at once). The walls are made of leather (amazing!) and it’s a dark, cozy room. Literature found in this room stated that Isabella would serve only coffee & hot chocolate here – I wish I had enough rooms in my home that I could dedicate a specific drink to each room!

Tapestry Hall

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I think I was mostly drawn to this room as it reminded me very much so of the huge Chambers of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace in Venice – just overwhelming in size. Featuring huge tapestries along the walls and huge fireplaces on either end, with the only source of light being from the balconies to the courtyard, it was a place I could imagine large crowds flocking to upon the opening of the museum the early 1900s.

Long Gallery

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The color on the walls was the first thing I remember seeing – a dark, rich blue that made anything lighter in shade, or gold, simply pop. (It’s also a similar color to what we have in our own dining room, and I love it!). This room was long  and narrow, and featured many cases of letters between Isabella and famous artists, and even movie stars. However at the end is a gorgeous stained glass cathedral window – a showstopper for sure.

Dutch Room

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This is the room where the majority of the art that was stolen in 1990 was taken from, and as an homage to the precious artwork there are empty frames still on the walls, and in other rooms of the museum, indicating where they would have been on display. The self-portrait of Rembrandt is also in this room, a reminder of just how important Isabella’s collection actually is. The green damask wallpaper was also a favorite.

Eye Spy

  • Just off the courtyard on the first floor is the Spanish Cloister room, featuring a ginormous painting by John Singer Sargent, but I was drawn to the more quiet window “altars” and trim. Along the wall are over 2,000 hand made tiles that Isabella arranged herself!
  • The painting of “Mary the Queen” in the Dutch Room was striking to me – her eyes seem to follow you around the room. It might have been due to the fact that Ghostbusters II was a favorite movie of mine as a child, and I could easily picture her being pals with Vigo.
  • There are two paintings of Isabella Stewart Gardner in the museum by two different artists. It’s amazing to see the similarities between the two paintings, but also the different intepretations they each had of her.
  • On the edges of the courtyards there are many architecture features and pieces of furniture, make sure you take the time to read about them! I looked down to find that I was casually standing in front of a sarcophagus from 225 A.D. What?!
  • One of my favorite pieces of architecture was an actual pulpit from a church that was transformed into a door way in the Gothic Room. You don’t realize what you are walking thru until you are in the room, which was neat.
  • Downstairs where you purchase your tickets and first enter the museum is a greenhouse, free of charge with admission. Don’t miss the chance for a bit of spring!

Visiting Tips

  • This place was pretty busy when we visited, granted it was the middle of winter and people are starting to go a bit stir-crazy, and museums are a great destination. But, I would love the opporutnity to visit mid-week when it was a bit quieter.
  • There is an audio tour available, either by renting or by using your cell phone. I wish that I had taken this opporutnity to learn more,  but again, there’s nothing stopping me from a return visit!
  • One thing I liked, but also didn’t like, about this museum is that there are very few barriers (glass, roping, etc.) stopping you from getting up close & personal with a lot of artwork and artifacts. Teeny, tiny little labels indicate “Please don’t touch”. While I love this as it makes it more of an intimate experience, as Isabella would have had with these same items, I’m a toucher. I want to feel the cool marble, the texture of the sculpture and I almost need something that stops me from doing so. My husband kept me in check, don’t worry, but it wasn’t easy. Also a thing to note if you are bring the kiddos!
  • Admission was $15, well worth it. But check out their website prior to going, as they have some fun ways to knock a few dollars off the price, including free admission if your name is Isabella, a few dollars off if you have on Red Sox paraphernalia, etc. Plus you learn a little about her prior to your visit!

Top Photos

Below are some of my favorite shots of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum but I’ll be sharing more on our Facebook & Instagram pages! Enjoy!

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