People rarely put a city’s central library on a list of must sees. The New York Public Library reading room is an obvious exception, and the Library of Congress is in a class by itself. So when my waitress at Cafe G at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum urged me to check out the Boston Public Library and take the tour offered once daily, I listened.
Fortunately admission is free and the tour is also free. This is a theme at the Boston Public Library. “Free For All” is carved in stone over the entrance. The Boston Public Library is the first large library in the nation. It was remarkable that the founding donors who started with a few rooms of books to lend in 1848 opened it to all–even the hordes of Irish and German immigrants who crowded the city at that time.
The Central Library building on Copley Square occupies a full city block. It has occupied this third home since 1895. They spared no expense on the art and architecture, hence the value of a tour from a well-trained docent like Gail. We met in the front foyer and the tour covered a lot of ground from outside the entrance to the third floor galleries to the inner courtyard. It was wonderful to learn more about the politics and controversy that gave us such a beautiful community asset.
Gail explained the blanks on the John Singer Sargent gallery, but only alluded to some conflict that prevented us from seeing the Whistler paintings in the Reading Room. It is all very interesting and worth the investment of an hour.
I also arrived early and enjoyed lunch at the Map Room Cafe. The food is all “to go” so I took my yummy Cobb salad to the nearby courtyard and enjoyed a wonderful dining experience next to the fountain. There is also a Newsfeed cafe in the new modern addition where you’ll find the Children’s Library on the second level. Or you can pay $40 per person and go all out for high tea at the Courtyard Restaurant.
Copley Square has a lot going on. The John Hancock tower is nearby. The Old South Church is the other side of Boylston Street from the library. Also straddling Boylston at the modern library entrance is the Boston Marathon finish. This is also the site of the Patriots Day bombing. Thankfully the area has fully recovered.
One block away is Newbury Street, the main shopping street of the Back Bay neighborhood. Boston is a small big city and it doesn’t take long to walk to Berklee College of Music and the Boston Museum of Art or on to Boston Public Garden.
I read about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum a couple of decades ago before the expansion. I’ve been yearning to visit ever since. The couple of times I’ve made it to Boston the family agenda has superseded mine. I finally made it! Since I first read about it they have added a whole new administrative wing with a cafe, book shop, reading room, music hall and offices.
Gardner created her palace of fine art to show off her collection. What I didn’t realize is that it designed as an immersive experience. It is Gardner’s assemblage masterpiece. For example, the wing she added for John Singer Sargent’s El Joleo. Her cousin owned the painting and accepted an ambassador appointment. He had planned to will her the painting, so she offered to “babysit” and then immediately added this Spanish Cloister to best display the painting. On one side are spanish tiles and pottery and an archway into the center courtyard garden, and on the other side is a mirror to better enjoy the painting and light. She didn’t use electrified lighting (although her personal apartments did) so there is a place on the floor where the original lantern stood. She opened the new gallery space to much fanfare, so of course her cousin could not ask for the painting back!
I definitely recommend the docent guided tour. In an hour the docent explains in depth 6 different paintings and in the process you see most of the museum. I must warn you though, you’ll either want to plan for time to go back and look longer at the things you had to speed by on the way, or go again or both! This vignette is typical of Gardner’s creations. In the Raphael room, she created this scene for us to admire Raphael’s painting of a friend. They do have elevators to help people who cannot cope with the stairs.
In 1990 the Museum experienced a theft of 13 paintings–3 from the Dutch room–by 2 men dressed as Boston police officers. This self-portrait of Rembrandt remained because it is on wood and could not be cut out of the frame. There is a $5 million reward for the return of the paintings. They have left the empty frames awaiting their return. The will stipulates that nothing in the gallery can be changed and this has been honored almost to the last inch, making the theft more tragic. The 2005 documentary Stolen is fascinating (I just ordered a used DVD for $12. I originally saw it from a rental from the video store–remember those?).
Isabella Stewart Gardner was fascinating in her own right. A bad-ass woman for her time, or for any time. She used her $33 million inheritance to create this museum masterpiece. I bought a biography, Mrs. Jack, from the excellent gift shop. I look forward to reading it. There were at least 2 portraits of her in the museum. My favorite was the John Singer Sargent portrait hanging on the top floor of the gallery. Henry James introduced Gardner to Sargent and she became his patron and enthusiastic collaborator. He painted her portrait just after the scandal of painting Madame X and having it refused by the client. This portrait also caused a ruckus and Gardner’s husband Jack asked her not to display it in the gallery (and so she did not until after his death). I love it!
Getting to the museum was an easy walk from the Ruggles Station on the Orange Line. Gardner bought the land at the edge of Frederick Law Olmstead’s new park Fenway (what was on the edge of town at the time). There are a number of art colleges surrounding it and it is just a short walk from Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. I also found Lyft to be super affordable and never waited more than 4 minutes for my driver. It is just slightly more expensive than the T. It is only $15 admission but thanks to my Crocker Art Museum membership I got in free. There are senior discounts $12 and student discounts $5. The museum hours vary and the galleries are closed on Tuesdays.