The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 19, 2008


Gardner Museum welcomes Carlisle Council on Aging

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840 – 1924) is well known as Boston’s patroness of the arts, muse for writers such as Henry James and leader of a salon scene that included lavish parties at her Fenway Court home, now the Gardner Museum. She is also remembered for flaunting her wealth, scandalizing the Boston Brahmins, ignoring building codes and import laws and supporting those heroes of the lower classes, the Boston Red Sox.

On Friday September 12, the Carlisle Council on Aging hosted a visit to the Gardner Museum in Boston’s Fenway, built in 1901 to house Gardner’s extensive collection of European sculpture and painting, and willed to the City of Boston upon her death.

Light, greenery and an atrium

Entering the building is an experience not unlike entering Fenway Park, as a very plain exterior gives way to light, greenery and the beauty of a three-story atrium. Fenway Court was built around this atrium, which was the first of its kind in America. Although plantings change throughout the year, on Friday, arched Venetian marble balconies looked over a courtyard of blooming Chimney Bellflower and hydrangea and exotic palms, ferns, and bromeliads. Marble Roman statues and a central mosaic add to the illusion of having been transported to a place far, far from the streets of Boston.

All floors open onto the courtyard, and the galleries are arranged the way Gardner designed them, as her will specified that the exhibits remain unchanged. Arists include Giotto, Fra Angelico, Bottocelli, Titian, Van Dyck, and many other masters. The theft of 14 pieces of art in 1990 is acknowledged only by empty frames where Rembrandts and Vermeers once resided. Art of many periods is displayed, as well as works of personal interest to Gardner, such as her own portraits by John Singer Sargent. The lighting is dim, as Gardner believed natural light is best for art viewing. Some of our group might have disagreed, as we arrived on a gloomy day, and occasionally found it difficult to see the smaller and more detailed works.

A Carlisle connection

I was interested to learn of a Carlisle connection to the museum. Ted Read, who attended the outing, is the great-grandson of the architect of Fenway Court, Willard P. Sears. He notes that

Gardner was remembered as a difficult client, with “very much a mind of her own.” Sears kept a diary throughout the building process and reported in detail the trials and difficulties involved in getting imported Italian construction workers to understand and implement Gardner’s vision (see The Art of Scandal, by Douglass Shand-Tucci, p. 206).

In a later conversation with Ted’s wife Norma, she noted that Ted and his father, who was also an architect, had been feted at Gardner Museum events, and the recent visit to the museum “very much brought back old memories.”

A unique experience

Although many of the 25 participants had visited the museum before, all agreed that the uniqueness of the experience makes it worth a second, third or fourth visit. It is truly one of the crown jewels of Boston, suffused with the spirit of a unique woman. We all look forward to meeting Mrs. Gardner when she visits Carlisle (in the person of reenactor Jessa Piaita) tomorrow at 2 p.m. in Center Park.

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito