One Hundred Years of Nasturtiums: Arthur Pope and James Prosek

At the Gardner, cascades of blooming vines appear each spring and inspire artists like Arthur Pope and James Prosek. Learn more about these colorful flowers and how their 100-year history is still a celebrated annual tradition.

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Many of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s friends drew artistic inspiration from her museum, including Arthur Pope, a color theorist and professor of art at Harvard University. On one of his visits, Pope captured the Museum’s annual spring Courtyard display of bright orange flowers cascading over the balconies in his painting Nasturtiums at Fenway Court.

Isabella began growing nasturtium vines by 1913 at her home Green Hill in Brookline, Massachusetts. Annually in April, she placed them on the balconies of the Courtyard to celebrate her birthday. Pope probably painted his picture to commemorate what was believed to be the flowers’ last appearance in the Courtyard after Isabella sold Green Hill along with its greenhouses in 1919. She hung the painting in the Macknight Room, a gallery filled with objects of personal significance, and where Isabella spent most of her time toward the end of her life.

It makes me sick at heart that I have so much else to do, I can't get in more often to paint in the court... I do hope to get in some sunny day soon.

— Arthur Pope to Isabella Stewart Gardner, early 20th century (ARC.004614)

In 1926, the Museum Trustees—including Pope—purchased new hothouses, reviving the nasturtium tradition, which continues today.

The Courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Courtyard showing the annual nasturtium display
Photo: Sean Dungan

One hundred years after Pope painted the blooming vines, contemporary artists like James Prosek continue to be inspired by their beauty. Known for his love of the natural world, Prosek has been an Artist-in-Residence at the Gardner since 2018.

James Prosek

James Prosek drawing in the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2019

Prosek approached his residency at the Museum as an investigation through drawing. This is very much the same way he approaches travels to a distant or remote place, like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan or tropical forests of Suriname. Instead of a bird or moth, he draws a detail of a painting, a flowering jade plant in the Courtyard, or one of the rocks that Isabella collected and kept in the drawer of her desk in the Macknight Room. Prosek writes of his residency, “I’ve come to find, I’m not just investigating a place through drawing, but also the mind of an extraordinary woman, the museum’s founder.”

In April of 2019, Prosek made watercolors of the nasturtium display. He writes, “Nasturtium time is particularly magical, where the blooms are literally spilling from the courtyard windows like cascades. It fortifies this idea of the whole place—the living material as well as the art—as a kind of Eden of Gardner’s making.”

This spring, we invite you to experience this magical time in the Courtyard. Like Pope and Prosek, we suspect that you will be inspired to pick up a pencil, or a least your camera, to capture Isabella’s Eden.

* A special edition book of James Prosek's Gardner drawings will be available at the museum in the Fall of 2022. Stay tuned!

Learn More about the Courtyard Displays

Nasturtiums

Learn about horticulture at the Gardner

Hingham Nursery

Learn How the Museum Works with Artists Today

Artist-in-Residence Program