For decades, Bostonians followed newspaper accounts chronicling the globe-trotting exploits and extensive art collecting of one of the city's most iconoclastic characters, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924). Gardner and her husband amassed over 2,500 works of art, many of them near-priceless treasures. All of them reside inside her former home, a lavish Italianate villa known as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Gardner was born on April 14, 1840 in New York City. She was the first daughter of David Stewart, a second-generation Scottish-American, and Adelia Smith, whose father had owned a tavern and stable at Old Ferry, Brooklyn. The Stewart family fortune came from a mining and iron business in Pennsylvania. However, her father had grown up near Jamaica, Long Island, New York, on a farm which his daughter would come to love during visits to her formidable paternal grandmother, to whom she was compared as a child because of her own headstrong ways. Called "Belle" as a young girl, Gardner spent much of her childhood in the genteel "Old New York" society chronicled in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James, both of whom she knew later as an adult. The family lived in a three-story townhouse at 10 University Place, near Washington Square Park. A sister and two brothers followed. She was educated at small private schools in the neighborhood for girls of affluent families.
Gardner's pleasant youth was marred by the death of her eleven-year-old sister Adelia, who was two years her junior. In the mid-1850s, it was decided that Belle should attend a finishing school in Paris, and her parents came with her. They socialized with other Americans living there, including the Gardners of Boston, one of that city's most prominent families. A ship-owning clan, the Gardners had two daughters at the same Paris school. When her term was finished, Gardner traveled to Rome, where she enjoyed visiting museums and Roman ruins. She made the most of her time in Europe, acquiring languages with ease as well as an entirely new wardrobe, and returned home a vivacious dance partner. Gardner was not a great beauty: she had red hair, very fair skin, and portraits show her as quite thin at a time when voluptuousness was in fashion, but she was quick-witted and an engaging conversationalist.
Those charms attracted the attention of 21-year-old John Lowell Gardner, her friend Julia's older brother, on an 1859 visit to Boston. Known as "Jack," he dropped out of Harvard College to enter the family business, and was considered one of the city's most eligible bachelors. After a brief engagement, they were married at Grace Church in New York on April. 10, 1860. They began life as newlyweds in Boston, soon acquiring a home in the prestigious Back Bay neighborhood where the city's wealthiest families lived. Gardner was snubbed socially, however, because of her Paris-made dresses and New York vivacity, both of which were out of place in a Boston society still ruled by descendants of the Puritan founders.
For almost forty years, Gardner lived at 152 Beacon Street, the Back Bay's poshest street, in a five-floor French townhouse with a mansard roof and a wine cellar. Other members of the Gardner clan lived nearby. However, two had married Southerners, and the outbreak of the American Civil War brought several stressful years to the family. Gardner, known for her wit, later claimed to have been too young to remember this era. In 1863, the Gardners became parents to a boy, John Lowell Gardner III, on whom they both doted. But "Jackie" died of pneumonia before his second birthday, which devastated his mother. Later that year, her sister-in-law died in childbirth, and Gardner suffered a near-fatal miscarriage herself soon afterward.
Mired in grief for many months, Gardner finally heeded the suggestion of her doctor to sail for Europe. She and her husband departed in the spring of 1867. They traveled as far as Moscow, but spent much of their time in Paris. Returning to Boston in the fall of 1868, Gardner became intensely involved in a number of cultural activities in the city. She also bought her first painting, an Emile Jacques landscape depicting some sheep under a tree, from Boston dealers Doll and Richards in 1873. After an extensive 1874 trip to the Middle East, the Gardners returned to Boston when her husband's widowed brother, Joseph Gardner, passed away. They became parents to their three orphaned nephews. With the boys engaged in typically rigorous academic training in preparation for Harvard, Gardner took a keen interest in their schoolwork, and quickly came to realize that her own education had been sorely inadequate. She began reading extensively and attending lectures at Harvard by an eminent art historian, Charles Eliot Norton. The two became fast friends. It was Norton who suggested that Gardner take up collecting rare books in earnest. One her first purchases was a set of volumes by Dante Aligheri.
During this era, Gardner emerged as one of Boston's most exciting figures, known in the society papers as "Mrs. Jack." She was liked by many of the more progressive, cosmopolitan younger generation, but disdained by much of formal Boston society. Her dresses from Paris were considered too revealing. In one famous quip, a man tried to insult her by greeting her with the query, "Pray, who undressed you?" to which she replied "Worth," referring to innovative Paris dressmaker. Gardner did not shirk from publicizing such anecdotes herself, and was even known to encourage them at times. Her husband remained bemused by all the skirmishes. She began holding literary salons and concert recitals in her Boston home. In 1880 she and Jack purchased the adjoining house on Beacon Street in order to build a music room. It also gave them more room for a growing collection of art and decorative objects.
The Gardners took a trip around the world in 1883, and added Asian antiquities to their growing store of treasures. They became friends with some well-known personalities of the day, including the American-born London painter James Whistler. Gardner also befriended novelist Henry James, who immortalized her in his 1902 novel The Wings of the Dove. The heroine, Millie Theale, wears her trademark pearls in the same style as Gardner, who was known for a stash of precious strands given to her by her husband. Gardner also had a long friendship with Francis Marion Crawford, a promising young novelist of the day. The Boston scandal sheets printed scurrilous hints that she was romantically linked with Crawford, as it did when famed portrait painter John Singer Sargent painted her in 1888. The likeness caused a stir when it was briefly exhibited, for Gardner wore her signature pearls and a rather low-cut black dress. Local gossip joked that Sargent "had painted her all the way down to Crawford's Notch," a reference to a popular mountain resort of the day. This so angered Jack Gardner that he withdrew the work and it was never again exhibited during his lifetime.
Gardner was widowed on December 10, 1898. Jack Gardner left her an estate valued at $3.6 million, which gave her an income of about $97,000 annually in an era when income tax was nonexistent. His will affirmed the couple's intention to bequeath to Boston a museum of fine arts. Soon after his death she acquired land at Fenway and Worthington Streets. Gardner hired an architect to design a Venetian-style palace that would serve as her home and a part-time museum. She called it Fenway Court, and it was incorporated as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1900. The opinionated patron was intensely involved in every detail of its construction. She instructed the elderly Italian artisans who plastered the ceilings and cornice in Italian. The villa contained a private chapel, an elevator, and telephone. Gardner moved into it in late 1901, living in her luxurious fourth-floor quarters, and personally planned and arranged the exhibition galleries herself. On the first three floors, the galleries are surrounded by a central court, which gives the space a good deal of light on sunny days. Some of the pieces are not accompanied by information about the painter or date of origin, since she wished that viewers would contemplate them on their own merit.
The Museum contains a store of treasures from Europe. With the help of Bernard Berenson, whom she and her husband had known since his student days at Harvard in the 1880s, the collection came to include several priceless Old Masters. Berenson went on to achieve renown as an art critic and scholar. It was he who incited Gardner to start acquiring the paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Few collectors were interested in such works at the time. Gardner was one of the first to begin to seriously collect them. From impoverished monasteries and minor princely families she bought masterpieces and minor works alike. The museum houses Titian's famed Europa as well as The Concert from Jan Vermeer, one of the masterpieces of Dutch painting. She also acquired a self-portrait of Rembrandt, and that artist's sole seascape.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened to the public on February 23, 1903. Despite the elegance and prestige it brought the city, Gardner remained the target of ill will. Visitors stole small objects. Gardner once caught a woman about to snip off a corner of a valuable tapestry with a pair of scissors. She then decided to charge a dollar admission, which was a large sum in the early 1900s. Moreover, the museum was only open four days a month, and for just three months of the year. Critics pointed out that the museum's founding charter gave it status as an educational institution, so customs duties on the artistic treasures brought into the country had been considerably reduced. Gardner was known for evading duties by other means: she had been storing many of her treasures in a Paris warehouse, but fumed at the high cost. She arranged that much of it would be sent to the London home of an American friend, who then brought them back into United States two years later. The crates were listed on forms as containing household goods valued at $8,000. When a curious inspector pried open one extremely large crate, Piero della Francesca's Hercules was discovered, and a scandal erupted. Gardner was forced to pay $200,000 in fines.
Despite her love of art, Gardner also had a passion for far less rarified entertainments. She was a fan of baseball and loved to attend prizefights. In 1921, she acquired her last Old Master painting, a madonna by Giovanni Bellini. In her early eighties, she suffered a stroke, but recovered quickly. She still enjoyed a chauffeured afternoon drive. On July 17, 1924 Boston was hosting a convention; its decorations and street scenes delighted her. She asked her chauffeur to bring her car out for a second drive that day, but suffered a heart attack and died. Her will specified that her home serve "as a museum for the education and enjoyment of the public forever." It also expressly forbade any changes to be made. Nothing could ever be sold, nor any new works added; window treatments and interior furniture were to remain as she had left them-the rearrangement of so much as one gave the board grounds to instantly dissolve the entire museum. This insured that Gardner's Boston enemies could never disrupt or alter her legacy. Other codicils were more problematic: a 1990 theft revealed that many of the works were uninsured. Vermeer's Concert, the Rembrandt seascape, a Edouard Manet, and five from Edgar Degas were still missing a decade later.
Dictionary of American Biography, Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Shand-Tucci, Douglass. The Art of Scandal: The Life of Isabella Stewart Gardner, HarperCollins, 1998.
Tharp, Louise Hall, Mrs. Jack: A Biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Little, 1965.
Economist, March 24, 1990, p. 99.