The recent tour to Boston & the Berkshires was a overwhelming success and many of the Hortitopia group noted the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum was a great favorite. I have to admit, it stole my heart too, not only because of its art and artifacts, but especially for its dreamy interior courtyard.
By all accounts, Isabella was a remarkable woman. The firstborn of a wealthy New York family, she married a schoolmate’s brother, John Lowell (Jack) Gardener, just days before her 20th birthday and became a Bostonian. Within five years she bore and lost her only child, a son called Jackie. After suffering a subsequent miscarriage and being advised against further attempts to have children, she sank into a deep depression. Soon after, Jack traveld with Isabella to Europe for a change of scene, where they crossed Norway to see the midnight sun and visited St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris, and other lively cities.
In time, a love of travel and intellectual pursuits fueled Isabella’s ebullient personality and sometimes unconventional behavior. Celebrated as a millionaire Bohemienne and leader of the smart set, she became friend and patron to noted artists and writers, including John Singer Sargent and Henry James.
In the 1890s, with an inheritance from her father in hand, Isabella began collecting in earnest, building a world-class collection of paintings, statues, tapestries, manuscripts, architectural elements, and other remarkable pieces. The museum planned by the Gardeners to house these treasures, and which Isabella built after Jack’s sudden death in 1898, was modeled after a Venetian palazzo. Fenway Court, as it was then known, opened to great acclaim (and a champaigne and donuts celebration) in 1903.
As noted in the museum’s companion guide and history written by Hilliard T. Goldfarb, “She had turned the facades of a Venetian palazzo inward on each other to form a courtyard, a graceful oasis filled with flowers, palms, and fountains. Eight balconies overlook a mosaic bought in Rome that is surrounded by Roman statues. At the entrance to the courtyard stand the lion stylobates purchased for Gardener by her husband in Florence. Natural light, which was critical to Gardener, streams through the skylight, bathing the entire courtyard with its evanescent effects.’”
In 2003, the courtyard was redesigned as part of the museum’s centennial celebration to reflect the lush style popular in Isabella’s day. Now, floral displays are planned and executed around seasonal themes up to 9 times a year.
Last week, chimney bellflower (Campanula pyramidalis) drew oohs and aahs as the courtyard’s prima donna, while hydrangeas acted as supporting players.
The bellflowers are grown from seed in greenhouses by the museum’s horticulturists. As biennials, it takes two years for the plants to reach maturity and produce the 6-foot tall spikes of bell-shaped blooms. Native to southern Europe, chimney bellflowers were grown as a summer embellishment for the fireless grate in the 17th to 19th centuries, which accounts for the plant’s common name.
With careful observation, you can see many of the courtyard’s decorative and green plants remain in pots, though most containers are hidden, so they are easily exchanged with greenhouse replacements. The balconies provide visitors a unique view of the courtyard from nearly every room. In turn, the courtyard illuminates the museum’s collections and arouses intimate relationships between art and landscape.
The amazing museum offers three floors of outstanding art, including Titian’s Rape of Europa (1560-1562), Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait (1629), and Sargent’s Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (1882-1883), plus thousands of other carefully selected and curated pieces. Today, the space also hosts exhibitions, concerts, lectures, performances, and an Artist-in-Residence program.
The fourth level served as Isabella’s home until her passing in the summer of 1924. In September that year, her niece, Olga Monks, wrote, “It seems strange to go to Fenway Court and lonely. Bolgi [her assistant] told me a few days ago that he often thought he heard her calling him, but her people work as they feel she would have wanted them to do and the place must always remain live for that was the idea in the original conception and in the execution of the idea, a living message of the beauty in art in each generation.”