You simply must add the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum to your itinerary for your next Boston visit. A truly unique art experience envisioned by an extraordinary woman, the Gardner is so much more than a world-class collection of art: it is a tonic for the soul. You may have heard of the Gardner because of the famous unsolved art heist, and you can see where the stolen paintings await their return, but this place is so much more than that. A can’t miss.

A long-awaited moment

On mid-July day during that brief, but shining, period when it seemed as though everything was OK, I booked an advance ticket to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, something that’d been at the top of my list of Things I Want to Do When All This Is Over. When I entered the lush courtyard and looked out into the classical sculpture garden and up the pale pink walls and Venetian windows to the panels of the greenhouse roof, I breathed out a huge sigh of relief.

I’d been waiting for this for over a year, and my eyes filled with tears. I wasn’t alone. I’m smiling now, reliving the memory of a moment that will stay with me, even if the respite in the pandemic was short-lived. The Gardner does that—it’s a tonic for a weary soul.

The Courtyard at the Gardner

If you’re in Boston, you simply must go to the Gardner

Whenever anyone asks me about interesting things to do in Boston, I always recommend the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. It’s one of my absolute favorite Backyard Destinations. Famous for a 1990 unsolved art heist, the subject of a recent documentary on Netflix, the Gardner, while popular, does not draw the crowds that frolic to the MFA (Museum of Fine Arts) or even the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) in the Seaport. To me, though, the Gardner is a Boston treasure, a truly unique institution and experience that you can’t get anywhere else except here.  

Not your typical art museum

Set back in the Fens, a stone’s throw from the MFA, the Gardner offers a different art experience: a world-class curated art collection set up in a way that someone (who was unbelievably rich) might arrange it in their home. And they invited you over and let you wander around their house at will.

Nothing in the Gardner looks like a typical museum. Isabella Stewart Gardner arranged the museum according to her tastes, lovers of gallery walls will swoon, with furnishings, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, religious artifacts, and documents, arranged according to her own tastes (and not always in any kind of chronological or thematic order) throughout the three floors.

The walls are not white, and the lighting is anything but museum typical. There’s chapels, cloisters, colored-theme rooms, a darkened tapestry room that, along with an open-air garden, are good places to have a little rest when you have museum fatigue. A hilarious tapestry hanging in a stairwell elicits giggles from observant visitors (I know it’s not supposed to be funny, but it totally is).

Experiencing art at the Gardner

The point is to take it all in

With very few exceptions, you will not find those descriptive cards telling you what you’re looking at. This confuses some people; a woman spun around the Early Italian Room, complaining to her companion, “I have no idea why anyone would make a museum and not tell people what’s in it!”

To help such people, detailed online guides are available (audio available as well), and useful at times. But I think it’s a mistake to try and re-create a typical museum experience here. Instead, I wander about, stopping to look at things that catch my eye, instead of focusing on what the guide says I should. Almost always, though, what I do is wander through the rooms and over to the windows and look back out into the courtyard. This is how Isabella wanted us to experience her museum.

Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner
Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, by Anders Zorn, as situated in the Small Gallery

Isabella Stewart Gardner: a woman ahead of her time

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a woman ahead of her time, a daring free spirit who  hung out with artists, participated in intellectual societies, traveled the world. Born into considerable wealth in New York City, she moved to Boston when she married John “Jack” Gardner in 1860. After the tragic death of their young son, she started traveling as a way to recover.

After tragedy, a passion discovered

She became an avid world traveler. Isabella especially loved Venice, where she met American artists abroad, including John Singer Sargent, who painted a famous portrait of her that hangs in one of her many galleries. Back home, she immersed herself in Boston’s intellectual community and began collecting rare manuscripts and art.

She and Jack amassed an enormous, wide-ranging collection, including a Rembrandt, a Botticelli, and Titian’s Rape of Europa. As the collection grew, Isabella decided to create a museum in Boston’s Fenway so that the public could know art. Isabella felt that art had the power to change the world, and she wanted to share what she’d found with Boston.

A unique museum

A Venetian palazzo in Boston

Inspired by her travels in Venice, she designed her museum to hold her treasures after a Venetian palazzo. The Isabella Stewart  Gardner Museum opened to the public in 1903, and she spent the rest of her life continuing to fill and rearrange it until her death in 1924. She lived on the fourth floor, Jack having died just before construction started.

Gardner Art Heist
Frame of the stolen Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt

“For the education and enjoyment of the public forever”

Isabella Stewart Gardner left museum in her will the “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever,” with the caveat that the museum must remain exactly as she had arranged it. To me, that might be here greatest gift, for I imagine the temptation to tinker must exist in every museum curator’s heart.

The last surviving person of interest in the art heist case died in late September.  To be honest, I don’t have much more than the passing knowledge of the art heist that comes from having lived New England, but I do love that the Gardner honored Isabella’s wishes to leave things as she left it. In the Dutch room, site of the art heist, empty frames hang where the paintings once did, awaiting their return.

Visit the Gardner

As the days grow darker, the courtyard garden at the Gardner soothes. Indeed, that’s when I go most often. Currently you need to buy timed tickets online in advance, and masks are required indoors in Boston as of this writing. The first Thursday of the month, museum admission is free after 5 (you still need to book ahead for a time slot online). If your name happens to be Isabella, you can always get in for free (you do need to call).

The local favorite Third Thursdays at the Gardner are on hold in these Covid times, but when they resume, I’m going to be there. On these lovely evenings, the museum’s open and guests can enjoy a glass of wine and a tidbit in the courtyard before heading up to the exhibits. There’s often concerts, in keeping with how Isabella ran her museum.

A new, very modern all-glass wing opened in 2012 to house the growing needs of the museum without sacrificing Isabella’s vision. It houses the a large concert hall, gallery space, the gift shop and Café G, which has a small outdoor space where you can get lunch or a snack. I got a glass of wine and some charcuterie out there on my last visit.

The Gardner is magic, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Have you been? Let me know if you go! If you’ve been, I’d love to hear about your experiences there. Let me know in the comments!

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