Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA and the “Glass Flowers” in Cambridge, MA

My friend Janine is heading to Boston for a quick trip next month and over our favorite cocktails last week she asked me what art she should see when she is there. While Boston is full of good art, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants (or simply the ‘Glass Flowers’) at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are always my top two must sees.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA (which is around the corner from the lovely Museum of Fine Arts), has a significant collection of European, Asian and American art. The museum was originally the home of Isabella Stewart Gardner. The building (Fenway Court), designed to look like a 15th century Venetian Palace, was completed in 1902 by the architect Willard T. Sears. An auxiliary wing was completed in 2012. Gardner (1840-1924) began collecting after she received a large inheritance from her father in 1891. After the building was completed, Gardner spent a year installing her collection. During her lifetime, Gardner welcomed artists, musicians and scholars to Fenway Court. When Gardner died in 1924 her will included stipulations that her collection be permanently exhibited at the museum.

Continuing Gardner’s interest in supporting artists of all kinds there are always all sorts of events going on the museum. When I was there they had wine and live music in the courtyard of the original building. I had no idea the event was going to be happening, but had spent so much time there in the afternoon, that it turned into a nice evening as well.

In 1990, thieves disguised as police officers robbed the museum. Listen to this podcast to learn more about the heist, one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the art world worth about $500 million.

The Gothic Room

John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888
Oil on canvas, 74 13/16″ x 31 1/2 in

Two years after meeting John Singer Sargent, Gardner sat for him in 1888. Her husband, Jack Gardner, asked her not to display the painting publicly while he was alive, as many believed it was too fleshy and sensuous. The Gothic Room was a private room until Isabella Stewart Gardner’s death. Gardner and Sargent were friends for over 38 years, and she acquired 61 pieces of his work during that time period. Her portrait remains in the Gothic Room, which is now public.

I hesitate to post too many photos, as part of the joy of this museum is discovering artwork in the small hallways through archways, and items placed in unexpected corners, but here are a few.

Sarcophagus with Revelers Gathering Grapes, Roman about AD 225
Joseph London Smith, A Theater in Mukden, Manchuria, about 1905
Oil on canvas

I particularly loved how Gardner hung her collection. Rooms were packed full of paintings, frames touching each other at corners, and even hanging on doors. Paintings by Degas, Matisse, Sargent, to name just a few in her vast collection, were hung in this manner.

The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants (or simply the ‘Glass Flowers’) at the Harvard Museum of Natural History consists of over 4,300 models of more than 847 plant species. The collection was created by a Czech father and son team of glass artists, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Harvard Professor George Lincoln Goodale wanted life-like models for teaching botany. The life size models were made from 1887 through 1936 in the Blaschka’s studio in Dresden, Germany.

The gallery was renovated in 2016 which included restoring cases, proper lighting, cooling controls and cleaning of the glass flowers. I saw the collection before and after the flower restoration, and the difference was impressive.

It’s hard to photograph the flowers through the glass cases, but you can get an idea from a few of my photos below.

Around the corner from the glass flower room is a smaller exhibit of Blaschka glass sea creatures. The overall Harvard Museum of Natural History is worth devoting some time to but do yourself a favor and start with the glass flowers. Photos don’t do them justice.

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