As I walk in, my breath is taken away by the three-story indoor courtyard garden before me. Beds of clover and ivy blanket the ground, exotic Australian tree ferns frame a beautiful center mosaic, and rare orchids give a tropical feel to the scene. At the opposite end of the garden, a two-way staircase acts as the backdrop for a fountain; inverted Chinese fishdragons happily spout water from their mouths into the stone basin below. Cascading garlands of nasturtiums commemorate Mrs. Gardner’s birthday on April 14th, the day I was visiting the museum.

Not only is the garden exquisite, but the architecture as well. Modeled after the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, the well-known façade has been duplicated here, with the unique gothic style arches filtering sunlight into the surrounding rooms of the museum.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is Boston’s version of a 15th century Venetian Palace with an interior courtyard garden. Named after Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the foremost female patrons of the arts, she encouraged music, literature, dance and creative thinking across artistic disciplines. Disliking the cold, masoleum-style museums that were so popular in her time, Gardner built a museum according to her eclectic tastes. She preferred to evoke intimate responses, mixing paintings, furniture, textiles and objects from different cultures and periods among well-known European paintings and sculpture.

Surrounding the breathtaking garden centerpiece, Renaissance art is housed in the rooms around the perimeter of the garden on all three levels. Natural light enters the galleries from the glass ceiling and exterior windows, illuminating many of the works of art. The museum itself is a work of art, a testament of the sensibilities and personality of Isabella Stewart Gardner, with unusual stories, intimate portrayals, revealing her artistic flair and sense of vitality. The collection consists of more than 2,500 objects – paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, drawings, silver, ceramics, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, photographs and letters – from ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, Asia, the Islamic world and Victorian France and America.

Not only is the art renaissance, the entire museum is decorated in a medieval gothic style, with stained oak-beamed ceilings that Gardner had pounded with mallets to make them look hand-hewn. Floor to ceiling stone-carved fireplaces add a majestic presence to each room, along with ornate wooden gilded ceilings, similar to the Loire Valley castles. Brightly colored jacquard silk in rich red and lush forest green lined the walls, including pale green silk cut from one of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s gowns.

As I wandered from room to room, I was impressed by the caliber of art for such a private collection. The prized possession of the entire museum is Titian’s Europa, which Gardner’s astute agent, Bernard Berenson, snapped up before a bidding war could begin. You can also stand before a self-portrait of Rembrandt, Boticelli’s Lutrecia, Velasquez’s King of Spain, among other important works by Raphael, Degas and Sargeant. Because Gardner had considerably less fortune than the Morgans and Rockefellers, she had to be more resourceful. In addition to a keen eye for art, she was able to build an astounding collection for much less than other art patrons of the day.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in New York City in 1840, the child of David Stewart who made his fortune in Irish linens and in mining. Her mother was Adelia Smith, descendant of Richard Smith, a prominent Bostonian. Mrs. Gardner was allegedly a descendant of royal Stuarts and took great pride in this lineage.

Isabella Stewart was educated at private schools in New York and Paris, becoming friends with Julia Gardner, Jack Gardner’s younger sister. This led to their eventual marriage in 1860, moving to Boston, Jack’s hometown, coming to be known also as “Mrs. Jack” over time. After the birth and tragic death of their only son, the Gardners traveled to Europe throughout Scandinavia, Russia, Vienna and Paris, beginning their art collecting adventures that became the cornerstone for the museum’s collection. In the late 1880s, they traveled frequently across America and Europe, especially Venice, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s favorite foreign destination. They stayed regularly at the Palazzo Barbaro, owned by the Curtis family from Boston, which became a gathering place for the most prominent group of artists, writers, and socialites, known as the Palazzo Barbaro Circle. Isabella’s love of the city and of Italian culture inspired the eventual design of her museum. After Mr.Gardner’s untimely death at a young age, Mrs. Gardner began construction of a museum to house her incredible collection of Renaissance and Victorian art.

Calling her museum “Fenway Court”, Isabella continued to surround herself with the artists, musicians and thinkers of the day, creating her own similar artistic circle in Boston. Another tradition started by Gardner was the artist-in-residence program to helping struggling artists make a name for themselves. Ten portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner throughout the museum are a tribute to her, including John Singer Sargent’s Isabella Stewart Gardner, Anders Zorn’s Mrs. Gardner in Venice, and James McNeill Whistler’s The Little Note in Yellow and Gold.

Gardner was also a music-lover, so she dedicated one of the rooms, the Tapestry Room, to live concerts that still can be heard today on most weekends. Everyone from undiscovered talent to grateful musicians who Gardner helped in their aspiring careers were able to perform at the museum. This tradition continues to this day–to hear live music surrounded by 15th century Persian and Flemish Tapestries is a concert never to forget!

Snubbed by the locals because of her “catch” to Jack Gardner, the most eligible bachelor in Boston, Gardner still managed to retain her identity, often scandalizing the local press because she did not conform to the restraining Victorian code of conduct. She instead chose to live an engaging, exuberant life including much travel, entertaining and adventure.

The legacy that Isabella Stewart Gardner left behind is one of the most important private collections on display today. The quality of the collection is unsurpassed, enabling us to view art that is normally only viewable in Europe, and never in such an intimate setting. Not only this, Gardner is a role-model for everyone, generously giving back to a society that didn’t necessarily adore her, yet found a way to express herself both creatively and as an important part of Boston Victorian society. Thanks to her generosity, we are still able to view the innovative, elegant manner in which she displays her art as well as the amazing collection she created over a lifetime of traveling and collecting.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum