Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) assembled an extraordinary collection of art from diverse cultures and eras—and built a Venetian-style "palace" in Boston to share these exquisite treasures with the world. But her life and work remain shrouded in myth.

Separating fiction and fact, a beautifully-illustrated, new biography—the first produced by the Museum in nearly a century—paints an unforgettable portrait of Gardner, drawing on her substantial personal archive and including previously unpublished findings to offer new perspectives on her life and how she shaped her public identity.

What emerges is a multifaceted portrait of a trailblazing collector and patron of the arts— an exceptional, complex woman who created a legendary museum and played a vibrant and influential role in the art world.

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As we near the one hundredth anniversary of Isabella’s death, a reassessment is long overdue. Our institution has evolved and, so too, have the perspectives of our visitors…

This book offers fresh perspectives,
explores Isabella’s identity, and situates our founder in the context of her time.

— Peggy Fogelman, Norma Jean Calderwood Director


Isabella’s collection of fine art began in earnest after the death of her father in 1891, when she inherited his wealth. Isabella was a pioneering collector, ahead of her time with her early acquisitions of stained glass, Renaissance art, Romanesque sculpture, and Chinese antiquities. Discover how she brought to America the first works by several European masters, among other art forms and periods.


Isabella was a brilliant curator who directed the construction of her art museum and the installation of art, architectural elements, and ephemera with determination and clarity of vision. Learn about how she created the immersive, inspiring museum experience that we still enjoy today.


Isabella’s views on political, civic, and social issues – as far as they are known – were complex and sometimes contradictory. She was a civic leader and social reformer ahead of her time, and she also sometimes expressed racial, ethnic, and social bias, decidedly out of step with our 21st century sensibilities. She was a privileged woman of great wealth who saw herself as part of a larger effort to contribute to the public good. With the biography, we aim to offer an honest portrayal of our founder, to confront the many myths that surround her, and to help us better understand her views.


Much is made of the stipulations outlined in Isabella’s last will and testament, the foundational document that governs our museum policies today. What is not widely understood is that this was, in fact, a transformative document, ahead of its time in the establishment of efficient and effective museum management and sound, sustainable funding. Learn how Isabella ensured that her Museum would exist “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”