Gardner, Isabella Stewart (1840–1924)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Gardner, Isabella Stewart (1840–1924)

American art collector and socialite who designed and built the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Born Isabella Stewart in New York City on April 14, 1840; died in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1924; eldest and one of four children (two girls and two boys) of David (a businessman) and Adelia (Smith) Stewart; educated by private tutors and at asmall private girls' school in New York; attended a finishing school in Paris; married John Lowell Gardner (a businessman), on April 10, 1860 (died 1898); children: one son Jackie, who died at age two.

At Fenway Court in Boston, close to the Museum of Fine Arts, stands the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an elaborate Italian palace designed and built by Gardner in 1902 as a residence and to house her remarkable collection of fine art. Upon her death in 1924, she left Fenway Court to the city of Boston "for the education and enjoyment of the public." Her will also contained the proviso that the building remain exactly as she left it, with nothing added, removed, or rearranged. Thus it stands, unchanged, a monument to the notorious "Mrs. Jack," a complex and fascinating woman who was one of America's most important art collectors.

Isabella Stewart was born and raised in New York City, the daughter of a successful businessman. She met John Lowell Gardner, one of Boston's most eligible bachelors, through his sister Julia Gardner with whom Isabella attended finishing school in Paris. The Gardners were married in April 1860 and established themselves in Boston, where young Isabella led an exceedingly quiet life for nearly a decade. Fragile in health, she had a meager social life during the early years of her marriage and was unnerved by a less than warm reception from Brahmin society. In 1863, Gardner was elated by the birth of a son and heir but sank into depression when young Jackie died two years later. A subsequent miscarriage, and news that she would be unable to bear another child, left her despondent. At the doctor's suggestion, she and her husband embarked on a restorative trip abroad. Upon departure, Isabella was purportedly so weak that she had to be carried aboard ship on a mattress. By the time she reached her destination, however, she was well enough for a grand tour, including Spain and a trek across Russia. She returned to Boston a few months later in renewed good health and exceedingly high spirits. "Quickly she became one of the most conspicuous members of Boston society," wrote Morris Carter, Gardner's biographer and the first curator of her collection. "Effervescent, exuberant, reckless, witty, she did whatever she pleased."

Indeed, over the next five decades, Gardner evidently took delight in shocking conservative Boston society with her behavior. She drank beer at Boston "Pops" concerts, while the other women sipped sherry, and sat in the front row at a Jim Corbett boxing match, when "proper" women generally did not attend sporting events. Some of her escapades may have grown more notorious as they were retold through the years, like the recounting of her supposed strolls around the Boston zoo with a lion on a leash or her Lenten penance at the Church of the Advent, where, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, she is said to have scrubbed down the steps on her hands and knees. One story has her arriving at an artists' ball dressed in a cerise and gold brocade gown, the train of which was held by a diminutive African in Malayan costume who carried a small dog in his arms.

C'est mon plaisir (It's my pleasure).

—Motto over the Florentine door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Plain in appearance, Gardner made the best of her assets, playing up her hourglass figure and baring her extraordinary shoulders in dresses ordered from Paris. She surrounded herself with a who's who of artists and literary types, including Ignace Paderewski, Henry Irving, Henry James, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Among her few women friends were opera stars Emma Eames and Nellie Melba and authors Edith Wharton and Julia Ward Howe . Of her paramours, real and imagined, none was more notorious than John Singer Sargent, who traveled with the Gardners and was a frequent guest at Isabella's adjoining townhouses on Beacon Street and her summer retreat in Brookline. Sargent painted perhaps the most famous portrait of Gardner, a full-length likeness in which she is dressed in black with strands of pearls draped around her wasp waist. Her bare white arms caused such a stir when the portrait was first exhibited in Boston that her husband, who appeared to be unconcerned about her unconventional relationship with Sargent, never again allowed the picture to be shown. After John Gardner's death, Sargent would be Isabel-la's constant companion when he was in the country. (Their romance is the subject of Countess Eleanor Palffy 's 1951 novel The Lady and the Painter, although Palffy contends that the relationship was platonic.) Isabella Gardner was also captured on canvas by Swedish painter Anders Zorn and American James Whistler.

Beginning in 1874, the Gardners made frequent trips to Europe, where Isabella began to acquire rare books. Her acquisitions included a 1481 Dante, a Book of Hours that had belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots , and a holograph manuscript of Longfellow's Paul Revere's Ride. It was not until 1888 that she purchased her first

important painting, a Madonna by Francisco Zurbaran. After that acquisition, she began to collect at an accelerated pace, especially after receiving a substantial inheritance from her father in 1891. From 1894, Gardner enlisted her friend and protégé Bernard Berenson to advise and assist her in her acquisitions. She had met and befriended Berenson in Charles Eliot Norton's art history class and later helped finance his studies in Europe. On his way to becoming the world's leading authority on Italian Renaissance art, he procured for Gardner some of her most exquisite paintings, including Titian's Rape of Europa, which Rubens called "the greatest painting in the world," and Rembrandt's self-portrait at the age of 23, which Berenson described as "one of the most precious pictures in existence."

Upon her husband's death in December 1898, Isabella Gardner inherited his considerable fortune and began to formulate plans for Fenway Court, a building worthy of housing her collection. In December 1899, on land purchased on the barren, swampy Fens, Gardner began construction of her Venetian palace, inspired by the Palazzo Bardini on the Grand Canal. She oversaw every detail of the project herself, exercising her will over everyone, including the Boston building inspector to whom, in the heat of battle, she once declared, "It will be built as I wish." Her architects and contractors were sworn to secrecy, and only a few of her intimates were allowed to view the building process.

On New Year's night, 1903, the building was officially opened. Following a concert played by 50 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Gardner, resplendent in a black dress, with two enormous diamonds rising on wires from her head like antennae, rolled back the mirrored door of the music room and revealed to the 300 socialites the spectacular three-storied, glass-roofed inner courtyard of the building, with its masses of flowering plants, splashing fountains, and eight balconies hung with lanterns. If the splendor of the courtyard did not astound those in attendance, the artwork displayed on three floors of candle-lit galleries certainly did.

Fenway Court was first opened to the public on February 23, 1903, and thereafter was periodically available for an admission fee. Gardner lived in the house for 21 years, entertaining a host of distinguished guests and continuing to add superb works of art. In her declining years, she grew increasingly stingy, rationing food to the servants and barely eating enough herself. "When her husband died," recalled Bernard Berenson in Rumor and Reflection, "and the bills of the baker and butcher and electrician were brought to her, she got into a panic from which she never quite recovered." Around Christmas, 1919, she suffered a crippling stroke, after which she was carried around the palace in a gondola chair from Venice. She died on July 17, 1924, and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, in the Gardner tomb.

At her death, Gardner's collection, minus manuscripts and rare books, or architectural elements set into the building, contained approximately 290 paintings, 280 pieces of sculpture, 60 drawings and prints, 460 pieces of furniture, 250 textiles, 240 objects of ceramic and glass, and 350 miscellaneous pieces. Among American collections, the Gardner Museum has been ranked fourth, after the Metropolitan and the Frick in New York, and the National Gallery in Washington. The building is as important as the collection. James J. Rorimer, director of the Metropolitan Museum, credits Gardner as a pioneer, the first person in the country to incorporate elements of Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic architecture in a building designed to exhibit paintings. Gardner's rival collector, Henry E. Huntington, called Fenway Court "the greatest work done by an American woman."


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

"Mrs. Gardner: A Biographical Note," in Selective Guide to the Collection: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Boston, MA: The Trustees of the Museum, 1989.

Saarinen, Aline B. The Proud Possessors. NY: Random House, 1958.

suggested reading:

Carter, Morris. Isabella Stewart Gardner and Fenway Court, 1925.

Shand-Tucci, Douglass. The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner. NY: Harper-Collins, 1997.

Tharp, Louise Hall. Mrs. Jack. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1965.

Watson, Peter. From Manet to Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market. NY: Random, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts