The courtyard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Photo courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Built in the style of a Venetian palazzo and with materials imported from Italy and France, the courtyard at the Gardner is a work of art in itself. Photo courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Day trip to a world of beauty

By Laura Wainwright - March 2, 2006

This is the time of year when we Islanders need to get away. When I crave the nourishment and stimulation of something new and need some bright color and warmth, I visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It's an easy day trip and it satisfies many of my longings for hand-made beauty. There I can see a diverse collection of wonderful art, relax in a lovely garden abloom year-round, smell flowers, hear live music, and even eat well and shop - all under one roof.

Visiting the Gardner is like being a guest in an eccentric mansion. Mrs. Gardner built the museum in 1910 to house her growing collection with the intention of leaving it all to the city of Boston. There was one catch, though: nothing was to be touched or altered. If it was, the trustees were obligated to dismantle and sell the collection. This might have produced a very dated, static environment, but it didn't.

I like to begin my visits to the Gardner by sitting in the courtyard. This astonishing space was the first covered courtyard in America. It is one of the most beautiful, nourishing places I know. Warm tangerine-colored walls, reminiscent of Venice, surround a courtyard filled with Roman mosaics and classical sculpture. No matter the time of year, there is an abundance of flowers and fragrance and light. Soaking in the beauty and soothed by the sounds of a small fountain, I put the outside world aside. No longer in New England, I'm on a day trip to Europe. Once I have relaxed in the courtyard, I slowly meander through the three stories of this elegant palazzo. It is a treasure trove of European art. Think of a famous artist you've heard of and he/she is probably represented here.

Sometimes I stay put in the early Italian room feasting on the lovely Madonna's. Other times, I focus solely on the luscious watercolors of John Singer Sargeant, the polychrome sculptures, or the collection of letters under their covers.

Each time I go to this museum, I discover something new. I take my time and focus in on what catches my fancy. The sheer visual extravaganza can be overwhelming, but it's also fun. Juxtapositions of objects and paintings are unconventional. Next to a Rembrandt you have a four-leaf clover found by Mrs. Gardner or a locket with some of her son's hair in it.

The museum is filled with private jokes and personal clues. Famous paintings may be hidden, like a work by Fra Angelico, one of my favorite Italian painters in the collection, that it is hard to find because it's hidden on the backside of a fireplace. It is easy to miss if you aren't looking.

When I am overflowing with all I've seen, I stop for lunch. The restaurant is a small café overlooking a pretty garden where there are tables outside when the weather is nice. The food is fresh and delicious. The menu is varied and interesting and the wines paired with it are well matched. The setting is relaxed. This feels more like a European bistro than a Boston museum. Last time I went they were serving a cranberry bread pudding with a custard sauce for dessert, which was out of this world.

After lunch, I always like to walk though the museum again or return to a painting or sculpture that particularly caught my attention earlier in the day.

Finally, I might be tempted by a little shopping. The museum shop is right outside the restaurant and is filled with books, lovely jewelry, and beautiful treasures. Before leaving, I always linger in the courtyard soaking it in one last time. I feel uplifted and renewed when I see the beauty that humans have created and continue to create generation after generation. It fills me with hope for the present. I return to the Island sated.

If you go...
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday 11-5.
Sunday afternoons there are free live musical performances.
Admission: $10 adults ($11 on weekends), $7 seniors over 65, $5 students with ID. Free for members and children under 18.
Parking: There is paid parking available at the MFA garage and lot on Museum Road.
Public Transportation: From South Station take the Red Line to Park Street. Change to the Green line E train to the Museum or Longwood stops.
Taxi: a taxi from the South Station Bus Station is about $12.
Address: 280 The Fenway, Boston
Tel.: (617) 566-1401
Web site:

Laura Wainwright is a former teacher and librarian who lives in West Tisbury.