Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Introducing Isabella Stewart Gardner

My first meeting with Isabella Stewart Gardner had left me duly Unimpressed. The encounter had been through a portrait of her by John Singer Sargent. She looked like a wannabe Madame X with her fair skin and black dress, and there was something stiff and unappealing in both her pose and expression.

Isabella Stewart Gardner

It seemed like that's just the way John Singer Sargent felt about her, too.

"The first time Isabella met Sargent was in England in 1886 by introduction of Henry James. When he finally painted her two years later it was on his first professional trip to America. The painting started in December of 1887 in Boston. For Sargent, it proved difficult. She was a restless sitter, given her high energy, she would continually look out the window to see what was happening on the river outside their home at 152 Beacon Street, Boston. Sargent grew frustrated and after eight unsuccessful attempts was willing to give the entire enterprise up but she was reported to have insisted “ . . . as nine was Dante’s mystic number, they must make the ninth try a success," and it was."

"She loved the painting and thought it the best portrait John ever did, even tried to get Sargent to admit as much. Her husband, on the other hand, who was painted by Mancini, had an opinion altogether different and expressed it in a letter to his wife from New York: 'It looks like hell, but looks like you.'”
(Morris Carter, 1925)

Isabella was a dedicated - and energetic - patroness of the arts. Upon the creation of her art museum in Boston in 1917, she explained:

"Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life's work if I could."

And so, she collected art - and artists - and encouraged, and supported them. The more I learned about this lady, the more I liked her - and the same happened with Sargent. At the end, it was he who asked her to sit for another portrait. This time it was a lovely watercolor - a tender, caring portrait of this remarkable lady.

Mrs. Gardner in White

"This, Sargent's last portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, was painted at Fenway Court in September 1922 when she was eighty-two years old. It appears to have been painted on Sargent's initiative. In an undated letter he wrote to Mrs. Gardner from the Copley-Plaza Hotel: 'It is very nice of you to be willing to let me try a water-colour - Will you propose an afternoon of next week?'

Mrs. Gardner had suffered a debilitating stroke in December 1919, which had left her right side paralyzed. As Sargent depicts her, pale and fragile, sitting on a day-bed with cushions propped around her, she might seem a diminished figure, but swathed in translucent white cloths and spiritually disembodied, she has the shrouded mystery of a priestess or seer, radiating a haunting, other-worldly presence. As a characterization, the water-colour is more intimate but no less iconic than the notorious full-length portrait of Mrs. Gardner, and it seems to have appealed to her taste for the dramatic and exotic. She said that the new painting was keeping 'everyone's tongue busy wagging' and confessing that 'even I think it is exquisite.'"

"The portrait might be seen as Sargent's pictorial valediction to a remarkable collector, patron and friend. Mrs. Gardner died less than two years after it was painted; Sargent was named in her will as one of her pallbearers, but he was unable to attend the funeral."

John Singer Sargent, The Later Portraits
by Richard Ormund and Elaine Kilmurray

Next: Just Who Was Isabella Stewart Gardner?

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