Winter is long and cold and dark in Boston, ask anyone. What always made it easier for me was the immeasurably beautiful Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, located in the Fenway area a few minutes’ walk from the Museum of Fine Arts. Its four stories of artwork and balconies wrap around a central courtyard with a mosaic floor, fountains, and a rotating collection of plants—all protected by a soaring glass roof.
In my teen years, I would walk to the Gardner and make use of the free admission for those under 18, sometimes visiting to peruse the art, but often simply sitting under one of the arches beside the courtyard, breathing in the floral air, watching people pass by, and soaking up the sun.
I felt so re-energized by my visits to the courtyard that I decided I wanted to build a house around a glass-covered garden when I grew up. (My desire may have also been influenced by the Roman architecture I was studying in my Latin classes at the time.) This is still my dream, though its feasibility remains to be seen.
The courtyard is not the only place to find inspiration at the Gardner Museum. Its vast art collection and, perhaps even more so, its history, are truly remarkable.
The museum’s namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner, was born in New York City in 1840 and moved to Boston’s Back Bay after marrying Jack Gardner. She was a very active and social woman, as suggested by the archives containing 7,000 of her letters from 1,000 correspondents (!), and she and her husband were friends with many great intellectuals and artists of the day, including painter John Singer Sargent.
Gardner defied the limitations imposed upon women of the Victorian period, living a life of great adventure. Over the course of thirty years, she built a collection of master and decorative arts by traveling the world and working with art patrons. In 1903 she finished construction on the palatial Fenway Court, an intimate place for her impressive collection, meant for the public to enjoy in her lifetime and afterwards.
The Fenway Court continues to delight with its stunning oil paintings, stained glass, carved wood, wrought iron, painted tiles, luxurious furniture, romantic balconies, and, of course, its sunny courtyard. In 2012, a modern glass wing was added onto the old palace, and this space includes a restaurant, an educational art studio, a living room with a canary, and a gift shop I highly recommend.
While I was not allowed to take pictures in the gift shop, they do sell a wide variety of their charming prints, books, and home goods online. My favorite find is the exquisite coffee table book Plants and Their Application to Ornament, a lavishly printed arrangement of Art Nouveau botanical illustrations.
Whether you visit to enjoy the shopping, the art, the architecture, the back story, or the sunshine, the Gardner Museum always has something surprising and wonderful ready for you to discover.