“Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life’s work if I could.”
Isabella Stewart Gardner, on the creation of her Museum, 1917
Whenever I walk up to the Floral Hall of the Royal Opera House in London, my spirits lift. Even if they are good to begin with, they lift. I call it my ‘happy place’. I find it impossible to be anything other than filled with joy when I am there.
The same is true of my favourite museum in the world; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA. Even though I now feel I know the collection well, I like to go there each time I visit Boston, revelling in the courtyard, the cloisters and delighting in discovering a piece of art I missed last time or simply enjoying my favourite painting.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy art collector who created her museum in 1900 and opened it in 1903. She had travelled extensively and had a profound love of Italian art and architecture, so she had the building designed to look like a 15th-century Venetian palace.
Walking in through the modern entrance and arriving at the old part of the museum, first-time visitors gasp with pleasure when they arrive at the courtyard. Even though it no longer surprises me, I still have a mental gasp as I look out onto the atrium-covered terrace, as its beauty staggers me every time. With a central square of roman mosaics, the courtyard is filled with Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures nestled among seasonal flowers and plants.
A cool, calming cloister surrounds the courtyard and it is almost a struggle to drag oneself away from it but delights and surprises are tucked away on three floors of galleries, so it does pay to move on when you can bear to.
The Spanish Gallery houses the best jewel; El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent. I will never tire of being drawn in to this picture. I am transported to a cave in Granada or Jerez, and want to stamp my feet and clap along. It is so intense that I can almost hear the guitars and mournful wailing of Flamenco singing.
There are many more Sargent’s to discover, along with two ground-floor rooms stuffed full of glorious early 20th-century paintings and two floors that offer an A-Z of masterpieces from Fra Angelica to Anders Zorn. Play the ‘which one piece would you take away, and only one’ and you will struggle to decide. Will it be a haunting Whistler landscape or a priceless renaissance masterpiece?
If you do ever get the chance to visit Boston, prioritise The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Yes, you need to troop around Faneuil Hall and do the Freedom Trail, I’m not going to tell you not to. But give yourself a wonderful cultural treat and get to Fenway for art and not the Red Sox!
In the meantime, here are my few photos to give you a flavour of what’s in store!