Alert! The nasturtiums are on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum! For those in the know, this is akin to seeing the Bat signal in the night sky — it’s time to move quickly, there’s something important going down.
At least, that was my experience during a weekend run up to Boston earlier this spring.
Until this past April, I had not visited the iconic Gardner Museum in Boston for at least 25 years. I had highly affectionate memories of it from my college and graduate school days: the enchanting courtyard garden, the inviting stone benches and upholstered leather chairs meant for sketching, studying, or just daydreaming. I’d actually see it in my dreams from time to time: a lovely Italianate mansion, full of light and shadows, art and flowers, the sound of water and the scent of lilacs and hyacinths. But somehow, in all that time, I had never made time to return there.
That was incredibly foolish on my part.
The Gardner Museum is one of the loveliest places in all of Boston – perhaps in all of the United States. If you can’t get to the Doge’s Palace in Venice, this is a very fine option to have a micro-dose of the same magical sensation. Spend a couple of hours here, and you’ll feel that you’ve had a little Italian idyll.
Built by Isabella Stewart Gardner, completed in 1903, and initially named Fenway Court, the museum’s core structure was designed “to awaken the imagination and enliven the senses.” Inscribed across the original entrance are the words C’est Mon Plaisir (it’s my pleasure.) Gardner was a patron and friend of several artists and writers of her time, including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, and philosopher George Santayana.
She was known for encouraging music, literature, dance, and creative thinking across artistic disciplines. By design, her collection mixes paintings, furniture, textiles, and objects from different cultures and periods among well-known European paintings and sculpture.
The Gardner is a jewel of a museum, but not a hidden treasure – this spring, we arrived about 10 minutes after opening time on a Saturday morning, and the line for admittance was already out the door. Based on our best guess, it appeared to be shaping up to be at least a 40-minute wait. Undeterred, we decided to become members so that we could speed our entry. For $60, we joined the museum family for a year, and were shortly on our way inside. (Fun fact: if your name is Isabella, or it’s your birthday, entry to the museum is free!)
We quickly discovered that in the two decades since I’d last visited, a few things had changed. There’s a new museum wing, all glass, and very well-designed. It houses a library, gift shop, classroom space and a café. You now enter the “Palace” wing, the original mansion, via a glass-enclosed walkway. It’s a little disorienting, but the payoff is that you’re dramatically plunged from bright light into cloistered darkness – from the sleek future into the graceful past.
Upon passage from the new wing to the old, you round a corner, and the glass-roofed interior courtyard and garden of the original mansion suddenly come into view. It’s a riot of tree ferns, plants, flowers, ancient Greek and Roman statuary, Venetian stonework, tiles and natural light. The scene is so lovely that it takes a moment before you can breathe again. Its how I felt the first time I saw the Piazza San Marco – my brain was so flooded with images and stimuli that I actually stepped backward to try to process it all. It’s that beautiful.
When we visited, it was the first weekend of the annual April nasturtium display. Their blooms are orange, their vines can be as long as 15 feet, and at the Gardner, they cascade gracefully from the balconies surrounding the courtyard. The courtyard color scheme that day was vibrant purple, orange, and white with pops of bright yellow. And of course lots of green.
If you went there today, you’d find blue and white hydrangeas, and a color scheme of violet, deep blue, silver and white from plantings like foliage of Artemisia, Cape primrose, and Bromeliad Aechmea fascinate.
You’ll be rewarded if you visit often: the courtyard garden is continually changing to reflect the plants currently in bloom in New England, and there are nine different major displays each year. Later this summer, towering blue and white Chimney Bellflowers will be on display; fall will see masses of chrysanthemums. Fragrant plantings, like heliotrope, are intentionally placed near the courtyard perimeter, where people like to sit.
The sculptures themselves are playful and witty if you study them for a bit. The mosaic tiles in the center of the courtyard feature a fearsome Medusa – in Greek mythology, looking at her would turn anyone to stone – and so she’s surrounded by stone sculptures. Nearly all of the sculptures represent powerful women from classical mythology, including Artemis, Persephone, and the Maenads (the male sculptures are only found at the perimeter, sometimes tucked behind a fountain.) I found a stone bird sculpture facing outward on the second floor, literally enjoying a birds-eye view of the courtyard below.
From now through October, the museum is also featuring a fanciful “Listen Hear” installation in the central courtyard. Taiwanese musician Lee Mingwei has created a soundscape with his imitations of crickets, cicadas, and frogs – all of the sounds were created by the human voice, and they allow us to explore the issues of trust, intimacy and social connection that are the hallmarks of the artist’s work.
The courtyard is the show-stopper, and you can view it from three different floors. Roam around, and in a surprisingly short period of time the shock will wear off, and you’ll start to just feel really good. As if Isabella’s your maiden aunt, who’s away for the weekend and who has left you her mansion and garden to house-sit. You can roam freely, get close to many of the objects, even touch things – you can sit down in a quiet corner and observe. You can just be. You can sketch. You can read a novel. You can mediate. You could fall in love with someone if you’re not careful. Some spaces on this Earth have good magic in them. This is one of them.
If we’re lucky enough to travel the world, we can sometimes become very picky about where we ideally want to spend our time. Sometimes we want the sweep of the Borghese Gardens, or the Parthenon, or Versailles. But sometimes it’s just perfect to have a small, personal, intimate space that reminds us of those grand European spaces, but that is more immediate, accessible and human-scale.
During our recent visit, I saw a casually-dressed grand dame sitting quietly on one of the stone benches that encircle the courtyard. Her eyes were closed, and she was breathing peacefully and deeply, as if absorbing its beauty, its nurturing presence and its fragrance into her very being. If I am ever that age, I thought to myself, I hope that I’ll be smart enough to spend a lot of time in places like this (come to think of it, perhaps that’s how one achieves surviving to an advanced age — mindfulness and regular doses of gardens and art.)
As we departed we felt a wave of gratitude to the benefactor who made the experience possible. Gardner decreed that her museum would be “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” How lucky we are that she was so generous (if you ever want to pay your respects, Gardner is buried across the river in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge.)
The Gardner Museum is only 5 minutes away from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, so you can happily have a Museum Morning and be done by lunchtime (both museums have restaurants if you decide to grab a bite while you’re there).
Otherwise, you can be off to the rest of your Boston day: shopping on Newbury Street, running in the Public Garden or along the Charles River, walking the Freedom Trail, grabbing a beer, watching a Red Sox game, hitting Legal Seafood, taking an amphibious Duck Boat tour (take our word for it, despite their corny looks, those tours are big fun and a great way to see most of the city in a couple of hours). Our absolute favorite hotel is the Four Seasons on the edge of the Public Garden.
Boston is one of the best cities in the country, and sometimes we take it for granted. Maybe pay a visit there yourself soon – and if you do decide to visit the Gardner, give Isabelle our best.