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Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888), by John Singer Sargent.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (April 14, 1840 – July 17, 1924) was a leading American art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. She founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Gardner possessed an energetic intellectual curiosity and a love of travel. She was a friend of noted artists and writers of the day, including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Dennis Miller Bunker, Anders Zorn, Henry James, Okakura Kakuzo and Francis Marion Crawford.

Gardner created much fodder for the gossip columns of the day with her reputation for stylish tastes and unconventional behavior. The Boston society pages called her by many names, including "Belle," "Donna Isabella," "Isabella of Boston," and "Mrs. Jack". Her surprising appearance at a 1912 concert (at what was then a very formal Boston Symphony Orchestra) wearing a white headband emblazoned with "Oh, you Red Sox" was reported at the time to have "almost caused a panic", and remains still in Boston one of the most talked about of her eccentricities.[1]



Isabella Stewart was born in New York City on April 14, 1840, the daughter of wealthy linen-merchant David Stewart and Adelia Smith Stewart. Tradition traces her Stewart ancestry to the legendary King Fergus of Dál Riata[2] (ca. 6th century CE). She grew up at 10 University Place in Manhattan, sometimes playing at her namesake grandmother Isabella's farm in Jamaica, Long Island. From age five to fifteen she attended a nearby academy for girls where she studied art, music, and dance, as well as French and Italian. Attendance at Grace Church exposed her to religious art, music and ritual. At age 16, she and her family moved to Paris where Isabella was enrolled in a school for American girls. Classmates included members of the wealthy Gardner family of Boston. In 1857 Isabella was taken to Italy and in Milan viewed Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli's collection of Renaissance art arranged in rooms designed to recall historical eras. She said at the time that if she were ever to inherit some money, she would have a similar house for people to visit and enjoy. She returned to New York in 1858.[3]

Shortly after returning, her former classmate Julia Gardner invited her to Boston, where she met Julia's brother John Lowell "Jack" Gardner. Three years her senior, he was the son of John L. and Catharine E. (Peabody) Gardner, and one of Boston's most eligible bachelors. They married in Grace Church on April 10, 1860, and then lived in a house that Isabella's father gave them as a wedding gift, at 152 Beacon Street in Boston. They would reside there for the rest of Jack's life.[3][4]

Jack and Isabella had one son, John Lowell Gardner 3rd ("Jackie"), born on June 18, 1863. He died from pneumonia on March 15, 1865. A year later Isabella suffered a miscarriage and was told she could not bear any more children. Her close friend and sister-in-law died about the same time. Gardner became extremely depressed and withdrew from society. On the advice of doctors, she and Jack traveled to Europe in 1867. Isabella was so ill that she had to be taken aboard the ship on a stretcher. The couple spent almost a year traveling, visiting Scandinavia and Russia but spending most of their time in Paris. The trip had the desired effect on Isabella's health and became a turning point in her life. It was on this trip that she began her lifelong habit of keeping scrapbooks of her travels. Upon her return, she began to establish her reputation as a fashionable, high-spirited socialite; though she had not yet determined her later life's focus.[3]

In 1875 Jack's brother, Joseph P. Gardner, died, leaving three young sons. Jack and Isabella "adopted" and raised the boys. Augustus P. Gardner was 10 years old at the time. Isabella's biographer, Morris Carter, wrote that "in her duty to these boys, she was faithful and conscientious".[2]

Travel and collectingEdit

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894), by Anders Zorn (Gardner Museum)

In 1874, Isabella and Jack Gardner visited the Middle East, Central Europe and Paris. Beginning in the late 1880s, they traveled frequently across America, Europe and Asia to discover foreign cultures and expand their knowledge of art around the world. Jack and Isabella would take more than a dozen trips abroad over the years, keeping them out of the country for a total of ten years.

The earliest works in the Gardners' collection were accumulated during their trips to Europe especially. In 1891, she started to focus on European fine art after inheriting $1.75 million from her father.[5] One of her first acquisitions was The Concert by Vermeer, purchased at a Paris auction house in 1892.[6] She also collected from other places abroad such as Egypt, Turkey, and the Far East. The Gardners began to collect in earnest in the late 1890s, rapidly building a world-class collection primarily of paintings and statues, but also tapestries, photographs, silver, ceramics and manuscripts, and architectural elements such as doors, stained glass, and mantelpieces.

In the early years of the 20th Century, Isabella traveled with friend and Boston architect Edmund March Wheelwright to collect for the Harvard Lampoon Building, also called "Lampoon Castle", a faux Flemish castle in Harvard Square. Isabella donated many pieces of art to the castle over her years of collecting. The value of this collection is uncertain, due to the secret nature of the Lampoon.

Nearly 70 works of art in her collection were acquired with the help of dealer Bernard Berenson. Among the collectors with whom she competed was Edward Perry Warren, who supplied a number of works to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Gardner collection includes work by some of Europe's most important artists, such as Botticelli's Madonna and Child with an Angel, Titian's Europa, and Raphael's The Colonna Altarpiece, and Diego Velázquez. She purchased some of her collection on her own, but often asked for male colleagues, such as her business partner, to purchase on her behalf as it was uncommon for women to participate in art collecting.[7]

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s favorite foreign destination was Venice, Italy. The Gardners regularly stayed at the Palazzo Barbaro, a major artistic center for a circle of American and English expatriates in Venice, and visited Venice’s artistic treasures with amateur artist and former Bostonian Ralph Curtis. While in Venice, Gardner bought art and antiques, attended the opera and dined with expatriate artists and writers.

Museum creationEdit

By 1896, Isabella and Jack Gardner recognized that their house on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, although enlarged once, was not sufficient to house their growing collection of art, including works by Botticelli, Vermeer, and Rembrandt.[8]

After Jack's sudden death in 1898, Isabella realized their shared dream of building a museum for their treasures. She purchased land for the museum in the marshy Fenway area of Boston, and hired architect Willard T. Sears to build a museum modeled on the Renaissance palaces of Venice. Gardner was deeply involved in every aspect of the design, though, leading Sears to quip that he was merely the structural engineer making Gardner's design possible.

The building completely surrounds a glass-covered garden courtyard, the first of its kind in America. Gardner intended the second and third floors to be galleries. A large music room originally spanned the first and second floors on one side of the building, but Gardner later split the room to make space to display a large John Singer Sargent painting called El Jaleo on the first floor and tapestries on the second floor.

After construction of the museum was completed, Gardner spent a year carefully installing her collection according to her personal aesthetic. The eclectic gallery installations, paintings, sculpture, textiles, and furniture from different periods and cultures combine to create a rich, complex and unique narrative. In the Titian Room, Titian's masterpiece The Rape of Europa (1561–1562) hangs above a piece of pale green silk, which had been cut from one of Isabella Stewart Gardner's gowns designed by Charles Frederick Worth. Throughout the collection, similar stories, intimate portrayals, and discoveries abound.

The museum privately opened on January 1, 1903 with a grand opening celebration featuring a performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra[9] and a menu that included champagne and doughnuts. It opened to the public months later with a variety of paintings, drawings, furniture and other objects dating from ancient Egypt to Matisse.[9] The museum is still arranged with a variety of textiles, furniture, and paintings floor to ceiling.[10]

Gardner lived on the fourth floor when in residence at the museum. After her death, the fourth floor served for many years as residence for the museum's director; When Anne Hawley became Director she decided not to live there, six months later the museum was robbed. more recently it has been converted for use as museum offices.

Death and legacyEdit

Gardner family tomb, Mount Auburn Cemetery

In 1919, Isabella Stewart Gardner suffered the first of a series of strokes and died five years later, on July 17, 1924, at the age of 84. She is buried in the Gardner family tomb at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, between her husband and her son.[11]

Her will created an endowment of $1 million and outlined stipulations for the support of the museum, including that the permanent collection not be significantly altered. In keeping with her philanthropic nature, her will also left sizable bequests to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children, Animal Rescue League of Boston, and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. A devout Anglo-Catholic, she requested in her will that the Cowley Fathers celebrate an annual Memorial Requiem Mass for the repose of her soul in the museum chapel. This duty is now performed each year on her birthday and alternates between the Society of St. John the Evangelist and the Church of the Advent.[12]

The site of her former home (demolished in 1904) is a stop on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.[13]


  1. ^ Powers, John; Driscoll, Ron (2012). Fenway Park: A Salute to the Coolest, Cruelest, Longest-running Major League Ballpark in America. Running Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-7624-4204-1.
  2. ^ a b Gardner, Frank A MD [1933] Gardner Memorial : Biographical and Genealogical Record of the Descendants of Thomas Gardner, Planter of Cape Ann, 1624, Salem, 1626–74, Through His Son Lieut. George Gardner ISBN 0-7404-2590-0 ISBN 978-0-7404-2590-5
  3. ^ a b c Anne Hawley and Alexander Wood, "A sketch of the life of Isabella Stewart Gardner" in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Daring by Design (2014), New York: Skira Rizzoli Publications, pp. 14 et seq. ISBN 978-0-8478-4380-0
  4. ^ Louise Hall Tharp, "Mrs. Jack", Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1965
  5. ^ Wessel., Reinink (1999). Docherty L.J. (1999) Collection as Creation: Isabella Stewart Gardner's Fenway Court. In: Reinink W., Stumpel J. (eds) Memory & Oblivion. Springer, Dordrecht. Stumpel, Jeroen. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. ISBN 9789401140065. OCLC 851367318.
  6. ^ "New Exhibit Explains How Isabella Stewart Gardner Amassed Her Famous Art Collection". Retrieved 2018-03-17.
  7. ^ Capel, Elizabeth (2014). ""Money alone was not enough": Continued Gendering of Women's Gilded Age and Progressive Era Art Collecting Narratives". International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. 6 (1). doi:10.7710/2168-0620.1013. ISSN 2168-0620.
  8. ^ "Isabella Stewart Gardner's old townhouse hits the market". New York Post. 2017-10-26. Retrieved 2018-03-17.
  9. ^ a b "Isabella Stewart Gardner | Boston Women's Heritage Trail". Retrieved 2018-03-17.
  10. ^ Litowitz, 2007, "The Character of an Art Collection", Growth and Structure of Cities Program, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
  11. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 16897-16898). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  12. ^ Mrs. Gardner's annual claim on heaven
  13. ^ "Back Bay East". Boston Women's Heritage Trail.

Further readingEdit

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

External linksEdit