While these days I’m just as happy to go on a food tour as I am to visit a world famous museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (I.S.G.M.) was one I didn’t want to miss. Thankfully on my trip to Boston last month I got to do both.
While her name may not be as famous as Morgan and Frick from a Gilded Age historical perspective and most especially an arts one, Isabella Stewart Gardner is huge. Gardner and her husband (and she continued to do so after his premature death) amassed an astounding private art collection that most of us today couldn’t even begin to imagine, thanks to Isabella’s father leaving her his entire fortune (this was gained from trading in linen cloth and iron). Although they traveled abroad extensively beginning in the mid-1870s, the Gardners began to seriously collect works in the late 1890s. Ancient antiquities, biblical art, silver, ceramics, they even “brought home” architectural pieces like doors, stained glass, and mantelpieces. These are the types of items visitors can see on a visit to the I.S.G.M., more than 2500 in total.
Unlike the J.P. Morgan Museum and the Frick Collection in New York, both of which at one time had been the private residences of Morgan and Henry Clay Frick, the I.S.G.M. has always been a museum. Following her husband’s death, Isabella decided to make her and her husband’s wishes of having their collection turned into a museum come true. And when you’re a widow with excessive amounts of disposable income, any old building to house your vast treasures simply won’t do. Isabella actually had the building designed to resemble a 15th century Venetian palace, drawing significant inspiration from the Venetian Palazzo Barbaro. Venice was one of Isabella’s favorite cities and this is quite apparent throughout the museum (in addition to the building’s design, there are innumerable paintings of Venetian scenes).
It should come as no surprise that my favorite part of the museum was the beautiful courtyard. This was one of the few areas where you could actually take pictures, but even if photography had been forbidden, it still would have been my favorite spot. The design truly incorporates rather perfectly the plants, sculpture, and architectural elements found there. When you see such a space, it’s hard to imagine that the city of Boston is just outside, specifically the Fenway neighborhood which is home to the Boston Red Sox. (Historical side note, when Isabella first purchased the land for the museum, the area was known for being marshy.)
Although the I.S.G.M. is small when compared to an institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the Louvre in Paris, because there are so many pieces on display in each room, it truly feels massive if you wish to stop and study every single article. Each room in the historic building has laminated handouts you can pick up to identify all of the pieces that are on display and read a brief description on them, but since some rooms are so large, they are broken down into “North Wall,” “South Wall” etc. and sometimes it is hard to identify which wall you’re looking at. And so it got to the point where I simply would stop to admire and then if there was a particular piece I wanted to find out more about, I would try to locate it on the sheet. While the handouts are certainly beneficial, I also feel they slightly detract from the experience because you’re spending more time trying to locate and match the work.
What Isabella accomplished with the creation of her museum is something from another time-literally and figuratively. Individuals like Isabella and her husband were able to travel the world and bring back priceless antiquities and famed Renaissance-era works of art simply because they could. And these things make visiting the I.S.G.M. even more unique and memorable. It’s not your typical museum and I think that’s exactly the way Isabella Stewart Gardner wanted it.
Tips for visiting
-You can take the Green Line of the T and get off at the Museum of Fine Arts stop. It’s a five minute walk to the museum.
-Admission is free if your name is Isabella. If you come wearing Red Sox gear, you get an admission discount as Isabella was an ardent Red Sox fan.