The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum gives a rich resource for reliving life around the turn of the 20th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, heiress and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner built a home modeled after a 15th-century Venetian palace.

Isabella Stewart Gardner first welcomed visitors to her museum on New Year's Day, 1903. On that evening guests listened to the music of Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, gazed in wonder at the courtyard full of flowers, and viewed one of the nation's finest collections of art.Today, visitors experience much the same thing.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in 1840 to a wealthy New York family and married a well-heeled Bostonian. Together they traveled widely and she built an art collection that was eventually housed in a Venetian-style palace at the edge of the Back Bay Fens. Known as Fenway Court, it was designed by architect Willard Sears, under Mrs. Gardner's instructions, to showcase her art. Gardener was a great patroness of famous artists, such as James Whistler and John Singer Sargent. She also acquired European masterpieces, and her palace is now a museum filled with works by Titian, Matisse, Rembrandt, and Raphael.

The museum's three floors of galleries, which open onto a breathtaking interior courtyard with seasonal horticulture displays, feature more than 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other objects spanning 30 centuries and many cultures. Truly one of the richest private collections of art around.

Museum video:

Three floors of galleries surround a garden courtyard blooming with life in all seasons.The courtyard is an oasis in any season, filled with beautiful plants and flowers. It is certainly a hidden gem in regards to it being part of such an exquisite building. Unfortunately visitors today are not allowed to walk in the garden because of concerns that they might brush against fragile statuary.

This woman with the outsized personality, who both scandalized and inspired New Englanders in her day, had a particular vision. She wanted to show visitors how art - whether on the walls or in a garden - should be lived with, how it interrelated. A number of paintings contain floral motifs or allude to the symbolism behind certain flowers. She also coordinated arrangements of cut flowers in the galleries to complement the art. Her favorites were violets, and in the spring, she kept them in a silver cup next to the 16th-century Italian painting "Christ Carrying the Cross," a tradition that persists.

Many tourists come to see the courtyard and revel in the garden's soothing, moist greenness every bit as much as they come to see the art. For Bostonians, a visit to the courtyard is like being dropped unexpectedly into a Mediterranean landscape, complete with ivy-draped fountain, Greek and Egyptian statuary, and the courtyard's signature Roman Medusa mosaic.

Now, as then, pots of blooming plants such as azaleas and fuchsias form rotating seasonal displays, as do garlands of hanging nasturtiums that are grown to celebrate Gardner's birthday on April 14. She was celebrated for her exotic plants, such as orchids, and for her Japanese iris.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has remained essentially unchanged since its founder's death in 1924 due to a clause in her will that deemed that no alterations may be made to interior of the building. So much so that a picture frames that were left behind after a robbery still hang in the exact position. Here is a helpful tip. Mrs. Gardner did not think much of putting big, descriptive plaques near the pieces; indeed, many of the pieces are not labeled in any way! So when you do go to the museum, go straight to the bookshop and pick up a guide. You'll be glad you did. The docents try to take up the slack, but you will get a LOT more out of the ISG museum if you pick up a guide.

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