Great Estates: Fenway Court, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston
December 3, 2009 | Fenway Court, the former home of Isabella Stewart Gardner, gives added meaning to the notion of a house museum. Built in the style of a fifteenth-century Venetian palace, it was conceived as both a residence and a museum. With the help of many great advisers, Gardner amassed-and later, meticulously arranged-a superlative collection of fine and decorative arts, architecture, and rare books and manuscripts, in what is today one of the most important tributes to the Italian Renaissance on American soil. Sited on the Fenway—part of Boston's "Emerald Necklace" of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted—Gardner's museum was an important intellectual and artistic center in its day, and for visitors today provides a unique view of those who inspired, decorated, and enlivened the homes of America's Gilded Age.
The vivacious and inquisitive Isabella Stewart was born in New York City in 1840. Educated in New York and Paris, she settled in Boston after marrying John "Jack" Lowell Gardner Jr. in 1860. After the untimely death of their young son in 1865, the Gardners sought solace through travel, visiting Scandinavia, Russia, Italy, France, the Middle East, and Central Europe. These travels inspired and informed the Gardners' burgeoning collection of fine and decorative arts. Once settled back in Boston, Gardner further developed her collection with the help of Bernard Berenson, whose expertise in Renaissance art was acquired in part through financial assistance from Gardner herself. Gardner's collection contains over 5,000 works of art, including painting, prints, drawings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, ceramics, and jewelry.
To realize her desire to make the house a public museum, Mrs. Gardner hired the architect Willard T. Sears, who, together with his partner Charles Cummings, had designed many prominent structures in Boston including the New Old South Church (1874) in Copley Square. Work on Fenway Court began in 1896, and Gardner worked closely with the architects, keeping a watchful eye on the construction process in order to ensure that every last detail matched her high standards. Most of the structure was built of new materials, but Sears also incorporated pieces from Gardner's collection of architectural fragments from European Gothic and Renaissance structures, as well as elements from her former residence on Beacon Street. Most notably, the center of the building is framed by the façades of a Venetian palazzo, which have been ingeniously turned inside out to form the courtyard garden. Topping the courtyard is a glass roof-a critical design feature that allows for the diffusion of natural light throughout the museum's galleries. In addition, Gardner purchased eight Venetian stone balconies that were incorporated into this inner sanctuary, overlooking an impressive tile mosaic purchased in Rome.
The museum rooms are still arranged according to Gardner's specifications. Idiosyncratic juxtapositions of works of art collected from disparate places reflect her personal vision, and her unconventional approach to display—which includes an absence of museum labels. For example, the second floor Early Italian Room features two Chinese bear weights from the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-8 C.E.) among Renaissance works by Bellini and Fra Angelico, while the iconic portrait of Gardner painted by her close friend and one-time artist-in-residence, John Singer Sargent, hangs in the third floor Gothic Room. First-rate works by Titian, Raphael, Veronese, and Botticelli, as well as period paintings by Whistler, Mancini, Degas, and Zorn can be found throughout the museum's three floors open to the public.
Gardner moved into her fourth-floor apartment in 1901, and on January 1, 1903, the perfectly arranged museum opened to the public with much fanfare—including a musical performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She remained a resident in her own work of art until her death in 1924. Today, the museum continues to uphold her vision as an interdisciplinary public institution with programming centered around scholarship, contemporary art, music, and gardening. The curators of the courtyard garden, which, for Gardner, served as the imaginative center of the museum, currently offer six seasonal horticultural displays annually.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is located at 280 The Fenway in Boston. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 am-5 pm, and most holidays, excluding Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Admission: $12 adults, $10 seniors, and $5 college students; children under 18 are admitted free. For more information, call (617) 566-1401 or visit www.gardnermuseum.org.