Isabella Stewart Gardner: the Lady, the Legend, the Legacy ~ a guest post by Alexandra G. Kiely

Alexandra is a twenty-something art historian and researcher with omnivorous interests in arts, culture, and history. She is also a figure skater and a dancer. Read more about her various intellectual pursuits at ascholarlyskater.wordpress.com.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894 as painted by Anders Zorn

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894 as painted by Anders Zorn

Isabella Stewart Gardner. Even among the ranks of art collectors – glamorous and fascinating characters all – that name looms large. A rare, early female art collector, and more importantly a female who founded her own museum, she was a powerful member of late nineteenth-century Boston’s influential upper crust. She was a woman of great curiosity and fierce intellect who travelled the world and made friends with the likes of Henry James, but she was also the subject of sensational news stories in her day and extravagant legends in ours. Her name will forever be associated with the mysterious and still-unsolved 1990 robbery that, years after her death, deprived her institution of many priceless works of art. With so much implied by that simple name, it can be difficult to separate Gardner the historical figure from Gardner the historical myth, as we may call what she has become, or from her influence felt today through the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

Isabella Stewart was born in 1840 New York to upper middle-class, Protestant parents. She was from an early age curious, intelligent, and adventurous. She was also well-travelled, visiting France and Italy with her family as a child, and travelling throughout the world as an adult. Isabella married John Lowell “Jack” Gardner Jr., the son of a prominent and well-to-do Boston family in 1860 and moved to that city shortly afterwards. The couple’s only child, Jackie (John Lowell Gardner III), was born in 1863 and died the following year. His tragic death had a profound affect on Isabella. She fell into a deep depression referred to as “neurasthenia” in the medical parlance of the day. Her cure came in the form of a long journey to Europe a few years later, which not only restored her health but also seems to have been the catalyst for her cultural and artistic involvement. Isabella and Jack travelled extensively during their marriage, not only to Europe but also throughout Asia and the Middle East, and Isabella kept voluminous journals from these voyages. Both at home and abroad, she patronized art, music, and literature and befriended intellectual and artistic luminaries of all sorts, from American poet Julia Ward Howe to Japanese aesthete Okakura Kakuzo. She was also very religious and was involved in Boston church life.

Isabella studied art history under Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton and employed esteemed connoisseur Bernard Berenson to advise her on her purchases. Initially, Isabella and Jack approached collecting efforts jointly on their travels, and they began the process of planning a new home to display and show off their expanding art collection towards the end of the 1890s. Jack died in 1898 before the building had begun, and Isabella oversaw the construction of Fenway Court, as her museum was called during her lifetime, on her own.

Fenway Court is a palatial home, based on the palazzos of Venice, one of Gardner’s favorite and most frequent travel destinations. She designed the building herself with the aid of architect Willard Thomas Sears. It includes a spectacular interior courtyard bordered by four cloisters inspired by diverse architectural traditions and is crowned with a glass roof three stories above. Each of the upper three floors has a view down into the courtyard through Gothic-style arched openings. Gardner moved into the fourth floor in 1901 and lived there for the rest of her life. She officially opened the museum with a large gala event on New Year’s Day 1903.

Fenway Court, which is now called the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is Gardner’s lasting legacy. It has not only a world-class art collection but is also uniquely reflective of the woman who created it. According to the museum’s website, it is “the only private art collection in which the building, collections, and installations are the creation of one individual”. The museum’s former Chief Curator Hilliard T. Goldfarb has observed as well that Gardner created her institution before better-known, male American collectors such as Henry Clay Frick similarly turned their homes into art galleries and museums. The collection is made up of a diversity of pieces, including paintings, sculpture, works on paper, furniture, decorative arts, religious items, and antiquities from a wide variety of periods, styles, and locales. All are curated according to Gardner’s own personal aesthetics and ideology, rather than the usual academic or historical groupings. For example, an Italian Renaissance painting may hang above a table displaying Islamic glass or porcelain.

According to the terms of Gardner’s will, the museum may only continue to exist as long as everything is displayed exactly as she left it. Nothing may be acquired, sold, or even moved. In this way, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum retains much of the spirit and personality of its founder. It is not just a building designed by Gardner, a collection started by her, or an institution founded by her. It is truly her museum from start to finish. Visitors today experience it in much the same way as they would have during her lifetime – that is to say in exactly the way she intended them to.

The unique arrangement of Gardner’s museum is only one of several topics associated with her that have fed much talk and speculation both during her life and since then. In her day, she was frequently the subject of headlines in newspapers and magazines, especially in the late nineteenth-century forerunners of today’s celebrity tabloids. As is the case with any sensationalized media stories, not all reports of Gardner’s behavior were completely reliable. Biographer Douglass Shand-Tucci has dubbed these frequently exaggerated and often fanciful news items “Gardner Tall Tales”. For example, much has been made of her fondness for lions and her habit of getting up close and personal with them at the local zoo, though exactly where the truth of her actions ends and the myth begins is difficult to ascertain. It has been suggested by scholar Wanda Corn that for Gardner and many of her female contemporaries, such attention-getting or eccentric behavior may have been an effective means of asserting themselves without completely breaking with the expectations placed upon women in their social situation.

There are many reasons that Isabella Stewart Gardner’s life has inspired so much fascination and achieved an almost legendary status. She was a highly intelligent, bold, and adventurous female at a time when such women were not common or even particularly acceptable, especially in then-conservative Boston society. She enjoyed the company of intellectual and creative men, often forming much closer friendships with them than she did with most women and serving as a sort of muse for more than a few. She had a particularly intimate relationship with the much-younger writer Francis Marion Crawford; the exact nature of this pairing has been the object of much speculation by her biographers. Gardner’s 1886 portrait by her good friend the American painter John Singer Sargent caused widespread gossip when it was first displayed to the public in Boston. Though fairly conventional to today’s eye, the neckline of her dress, the placement of her jewelry, and the boldness of her stance, along with her presentation in what has been called the style of a “pagan deity” or “Byzantine Madonna” were considered quite sensational. Fearing scandal, Isabella’s husband Jack requested that the portrait not be displayed during his lifetime; in fact, it was not put on public view at the Gardner Museum until after Isabella’s death in 1924.

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent

Although several biographies and numerous other works have been written about Gardner, scholars have had some difficulty in sorting through many aspects of her life because she burned copious letters and other documents shortly before she died. Exactly what she was trying to hide is very much in question, but this act has only increased the opportunities to speculate about her life, as Patricia Vigderman has pointed out. In fact, throughout her book “The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner”, Vigderman expresses her difficulty in understanding Gardner through the carefully censored personal archive and rigidly unchanging museum. “Eager to participate wholeheartedly in the pleasures or her legacy”, says Vigderman, “you encounter imperiousness and eccentricity”. Possibly so, but without the mystery behind the museum or the legend behind the legacy, Gardner would undoubtedly be quite a bit less fascinating.

Further reading: “The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A companion guide and history” by Hilliard T. Goldfarb, “The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner” by Douglass Shand-Tucci, “The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner” by Patricia Vigderman, “Historic Collection and Architecture”, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website: http://www.gardnermuseum.org/about/history_and_architecture/historic_collection_and_architecture

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