At the beginning of the twentieth century, well-to-do widow and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner had run out of places to put her art, sculpture, and furniture, so she built herself a museum. The center of her museum was a glass-covered courtyard filled with tropical plants which bloomed all year. And every April, for her birthday, let me tell you what eccentric and beautiful Isabella Stewart Gardner did ...
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 14, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Wealthy socialite Isabella Stewart married handsome young 'Jack' Gardner in 1860. The couple began to travel literally around the world and to collect art. They were particularly fond of Italy and Italian art, and in fact one of the highlights of the collection is a portrait of Mrs. Gardner throwing her arms open to welcome party guests in Venice at a summer palazzo they rented there.
Although Jack and Isabella Gardner had talked about building an Italianate home to house their burgeoning collection of art, the plan was cut short by Jack's death in 1898. Not one to let such details stand in her way, Isabella Stewart Gardner hired an architect and began construction in the newly filled-in Fenway section of Boston. She built a four-story structure modeled on the Italian palazzo she had so loved abroad, right in the middle of conservative, staid Boston. Galleries on the first three floors displayed the art, tapestries, antiquities and furniture, some of it as much as thirty centuries old. The collection includes famous names like Rembrandt, Botticelli, Vermeer, Titian, Degas, Manet, Sargeant, Whistler and many others.
Isabella had the courtyard in the center of the bulding covered with a glass roof, creating, in effect, a greenhouse in the middle of this huge house. Mrs. Gardner disliked the cold, impersonal spaces of most museums, and wanted her museum to be more intimate and personal, lit only by the light from the courtyard. The courtyard was stocked with tropical plants year-round, as well as a changing display of flowers.
She spent the entire year of 1902 arranging her collection and perfecting the interior of her museum. On January 1, 1903, Fenway Court (as it was called) was opened to the public. Although throughout her life it was open to the public only about 20 days a year, upon her death in 1924, Fenway Court legally became the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and became subject to the strict rules of her Will. Everything has to remain exactly as she arranged it. No paint colors can be changed, no paintings can be exhibited in other museums, nothing can be added or taken away. (Except through theft...).
Isabella's birthday was April 14, and her favorite flower, the nasturtium. Beginning in April 1904, the weeks preceeding April 14 saw huge garlands of nasturtiums hanging from the third floor galleries at Fenway Court, as she called her mansion. Today, the annual hanging of the nasturtiums is still observed in the first two weeks of April at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, as Fenway Court came to be called.
How Do They Do It?
Nasturtiums are started in an offsite greenhouse at the beginning of June from seed. The flowers are carefully dead-headed by Stanley Kozak, Chief Horticulturist and Patrick Chassé, Landscape Curator, so none of the flowers go to seed and the plants will keep producing flowers. They are artfully supported horizontally as they grow into longer and longer vines ... eventually reaching 15 to 20 feet long! The day before first exhibition day in April (this year it was March 30) the 12-inch terra cotta pots containing the long vines are ever-so-carefully carried into the museum's third floor gallery on a Monday, when the museum is closed to the public. You can see a video of last year's nasturtium installation here. Five 12-inch pots are stationed at each of four gallery openings, and the vines hang past the levels below. The result is a spectacular ephemeral display "unique in all the world," says Patrick Chassé, who received a Landscape Design Award from the New England Wild Flower Society in 2007.
The glass-covered courtyard was unconventional in Mrs. Gardner's day, to say the least. Apparently it is too shady for most plants, and acts more like a huge terrarium. The beautiful greenery and floral displays are the result of constant rotating in and out of a greenhouse where the plants are happier and on display in the courtyard of the museum. While Mrs. Gardner's Will is extremely specific about how the art and exhibits are to be maintained, it does not mention the garden at all, yet she certainly felt that horticulture was an art itself. Mr. Chassé's job is to deduce how the garden would have looked in Mrs. Gardner's day and reproduce the effect using more shade tolerant cultivars or potted specimens instead of planted ones, so they can be switched out when they need more sun and drainage.
Special note: people named "Isabella" are always admitted for free. Happy Birthday, Isabella Stewart Gardner!
Thumbnail image of nasturtium by bmuller - thank you.
About Carrie Lamont
Carrie clicks on EVERY link. She has two beautiful daughters, and has been married for twelve delightful years. Her husband works for an airline, facilitating Carrie's frequent need to travel. She has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gazes out wistfully at her full-sun containers from her air-conditioned interior. Carrie just moved from Massachusetts to Texas and is still recovering.