Walking between the stately stone lions into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is like walking into someone else's fantasy, although it will soon become your own. The Gardner Museum is a one-of-a-kind experience, as if you've been invited to stay at someone's palace and are given permission to wander freely about to discover what treasures lie within the walls.
Indeed, Isabella Stewart Gardner, or 'Mrs Jack' as she was called, built Fenway Court at the turn of the last century, in the style of a Venetian palace. When her father died in 1891 she used her inheritance to begin collecting art and artefacts from around the globe. She had the building built with the intention of its galleries being open to the public and had private quarters on the fourth floor. The whole flavour of the building is very personal and very eclectic. Bits and bobs of architectural detail from every period in history sit chummily beside paintings and sculptures in an array of styles.
The literal centrepiece of the building is the breathtaking courtyard. A lush conservatory four stories high with a glass ceiling, this 'Garden of Eden' is a fabulous counterpoint to the rich panelling and velvet drapes that adorn most of the museum. Although you cannot enter the courtyard, it is lovely to sit on the low stone balustrade that surrounds it, to close your eyes and to inhale the fragrance of whatever flora is being showcased that season.
Just beyond the courtyard on the left side of the building is the crown jewel of the Gardner painting collection. El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent is simply mesmerizing. Upon receipt of this work, Mrs Gardner renovated the building specifically for it. She created the Spanish Cloister, a long narrow room with a beautifully tiled floor and Moorish arches which draw the viewer in. You must walk the length of the room to approach the painting, highlighted on the far wall, which gives one the feeling of paying tribute or of making a pilgrimage. The painting itself is dark and sensuous - a lone Spanish dancer, caught up in the moment, clearly entertaining an audience, but seeming to dance for herself alone.
Aside from the courtyard and El Jaleo, the Gardner Museum has thousands of treasures to discover. Italian Renaissance paintings by Boticelli and Raphael, rich and beautiful tapestries by the score, incredible works by Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. Another favourite is the portrait of 'Mrs Jack' herself, again by Sargent. It really glows with the strength and creativity of its charming subject, making you wish you could have met her. As you meander through the hallways at Fenway Court, you'll notice glass cases covered with velvet drapes. Indulging the voyeur in you, push back the covering and discover the treats inside. Protected from damaging sunlight you'll find letters from all manner of famous persons, either addressed to or simply collected by Mrs Gardner.
What museum would be complete without a café and a museum shop? Both are charming and serviceable. The café is lovely in the spring and summer when you can sit outside on the little deck in the back garden. Take your time, sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on a tasty sandwich or salad and absorb the atmosphere. Then slowly wander back through the museum, wondering how you possibly could have missed so many things your first time through.
If art and antiquity is your cup of tea, then a visit to Mrs Jack's secret garden is a must on any trip to Boston.
The museum is open Tuesday through to Sunday. It is in the Fenway, literally behind the Museum of Fine Art. You have to park in the lot or the garage at the MFA and walk across to the Gardner.
In March 1990, thieves made the Gardner Museum the victim of the largest art theft to date. Twelve artworks worth more than $100 million were stolen, including a Vermeer (one of only 35 extant paintings of his), two Rembrandts, several Degas canvases, and a Manet. They are all still missing.
One of the men responsible for the theft will only cooperate with the authorities if they agree not to prosecute him for the act. He (supposedly) knows the whereabouts of the paintings and the other culprits and will gladly help the police. Many say let the man off as the experience of the Gardner Museum is greatly diminished without these masterpieces.