About Isabella Stewart Gardner
The museum which bears her name also stands as a testament to her vision. Isabella Stewart Gardner, known also as "Mrs. Jack" in reference to her husband, John L. ("Jack") Gardner, was one of the foremost female patrons of the arts. She was a patron and friend of leading artists and writers of her time, including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Henry James. She was a supporter of community social services and cultural enrichment. She was an ardent fan of the Boston Symphony, the Red Sox, and Harvard College football. Isabella Stewart Gardner was also the visionary creator of what remains one of the most remarkable and intimate collections of art in the world today and a dynamic supporter of artists of her time, encouraging music, literature, dance, and creative thinking across artistic disciplines.
Over three decades, Isabella Stewart Gardner traveled the world and worked with important art patrons and advisors Bernard Berenson and Okakura Kakuzo to amass a remarkable collection of master and decorative arts. In 1903, she completed the construction of Fenway Court in Boston to house her collection and provide a vital place for Americans to access and enjoy important works of art. Isabella Gardner installed her collection of works in a way to evoke intimate responses to the art, mixing paintings, furniture, textiles, and objects from different cultures and periods among well-known European paintings and sculpture.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in New York City on April 14, 1840. She was the child of David Stewart, of Scottish descent, who made his fortune in the Irish linen trade and later in mining investments. Her mother was Adelia Smith, descendant of Richard Smith, an Englishman who had settled in Boston in 1650. She was named for her beloved paternal grandmother, Isabella Tod Stewart, herself a remarkable woman and successful farmer. (A portrait of her hangs in the museum.) Isabella Stewart Gardner was also a descendant of royal Stuarts (although this genealogy is spurious) and took great pride in this lineage.
Isabella Stewart was educated at private schools in New York and Paris. Her first connection with Boston came through her schooling, between 1856 and 1858 in Paris, where a friendship with schoolmate Julia Gardner led to her eventual marriage to Julia's older brother John ("Jack") Lowell Gardner Jr. (1837-1898) on April 10, 1860. The couple was married in New York City and moved to Boston, Jack's hometown, where they settled into a house, a wedding gift from her father, at 152 Beacon Street in the Back Bay section of the city. In June 1863, Isabella Stewart Gardner gave birth to a son, John L. Gardner III, known as "Jackie." At just two years of age, Jackie died of pneumonia in March 1865, and during the two years that followed his death, Isabella Stewart Gardner endured depression and illness. At a doctor's suggestion, John Gardner took his wife to Europe to travel throughout Scandinavia, Russia, Vienna, and Paris and, upon returning home, Isabella Gardner was in good health and spirits. Although the Gardners had no more children, they raised their three nephews following the death of Jack's widowed brother.
A Venetian Flair
Isabella Stewart Gardner had a zest for life, an energetic intellectual curiosity, and a love of travel. In 1874, Isabella and Jack Gardner went abroad again, visiting 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. Isabella Stewart Gardner wrote fervently about her travels, revealing a great deal about her personality and inspirations. 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, Isabella Stewart Gardner bought art and antiques, attended the opera, and dined with expatriate artists, writers, and gadabouts. Her love of the city and of Italian culture inspired the design of her museum.
Back in Boston, Isabella Gardner was an avid entertainer and frequent patron of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Gardners hosted dinner parties with well-known guests, including author Henry James, writer Sarah Orne Jewett, philosopher George Santayana, and writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, as well as friends and artists like John Singer Sargent. The archives hold more than 7,000 letters from 1,000 correspondents as testaments to Isabella Gardner's social nature. These include glowing letters of thanks for dinner parties, concerts, and celebrations in her magnificent palazzo ("Has the music room dissolved, this morning, in the sunshine? I felt last night as though I were in a Hans Anderson Fairy Tale, ready to go on a flying carpet at any moment," T.R. Sullivan, Jan. 10, 1902). Isabella Stewart Gardner was also interested in sports. She attended Red Sox games, boxing matches, and hockey and football games at Harvard College. She relished in horse races, particularly if her horse won. Her motto was "Win as though you were used to it, and lose as if you like it."
The local press was both fascinated and scandalized by her. Isabella Gardner did not conform to the traditional restraining code of conduct expected of Boston matrons in the Victorian era, but lived an engaging, exuberant life including much travel, entertaining, and adventure. She also had a sense of humor, however. Commenting on the numerous rumors and speculations about her escapades, many untrue, she is quoted as saying, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth." As Isabella Stewart Gardner approached the end of her life, her desire to leave an endowment for the preservation of the museum forced her to be more financially conservative, and she often complained that the robber baron collectors, J. P. Morgan, Henry Frick, and Peter Widener-the "squillionaires," as she called them-could outspend her on the acquisition of new works.
A Lasting Legacy
In 1919, Isabella Stewart Gardner suffered the first of a series of strokes and died five years later, on July 17, 1924. 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 and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Isabella Stewart Gardner is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between her husband and her son.
Building on a Legacy
Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894, Anders Zorn, Oil on canvas
Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888