It's a large but otherwise unassuming brown box from the outside, but once you get through the door--oh boy! Opening up before you like a cool emerald green jewel box is a courtyard garden, protected from the elements by a glass roof hovering three stories above. The shock of it takes your breath away, as does the beauty of the lovingly tended plants in the garden--they are changed out several times a year to create stunning seasonal displays.
The Gardner Museum, its couryard, and the object d'art it contains are all the work of the eccentric 19th century socialite and art collector, Isabella Stuart Gardner. Mrs. Gardner was an avid traveller, and she searched throughout Europe to find the pieces that currently compose the museum's collections. She had very eclectic tastes--most of the museum's paintings are from the Italian Renaissance, but you can also find works by Whistler, Sargent and Manet, as well as Renaissance polychrome terracotta medaillons, Flemish tapestries, A pair of bronze bear statues from the Han Dynasty, snippets of French lace, and 18th century gilt chairs. That's why my friends and I jokingly call the Gardner the "Stuff I Found Somewhere and Thought Was Cool" Museum.
Once you leave the bright courtyard and head upstairs into the damask-hung rooms where most of the art resides, the Gardner's atmosphere grows more and more that of something preserved carefully in amber. This feeling is heightened by the general dimness of the exhibition rooms, and the air, faintly redolant of decay--like an old attic.
In point of fact, the Gardner's collection is preserved like a fly in amber--Mrs. Gardner's will stipulates that the collection cannot be added to or subtracted from, and that the art must be displayed according to her wishes. This leads to quirky surprises around each corner--like the piece of green silk hung beneath Titian's famous painting of The Rape of Europa. It's a piece cut out of one of Mrs. Gardner's Worth evening gowns. The down side of this is that even when paintings are stolen--as in the 1990 theft of 12 works, including a Manet, a Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and several Degas sketches--they cannot be replaced. The paintings empty frames still hang in the museum, waiting for the art to be recovered.
Admission to the museum costs $10 for adults($11 on weekends), $7 for Seniors, and $5 for college students with ID. You can save $2 off adult and senior admission if you're visiting both the Gardner and the MFA in a 2 day period.