Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Remarkable, Unconventional Isabella

Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in New York City on April 14, 1840 into wealth and privilege. She learned early on that an elevated station in life couldn't stop bad things from happening. Her baby Jackie died of pneumonia in 1864 when less than one year old.

Isabella was inconsolable for nearly two years. Upon her phycisian's advice, her husband, Jack took her to Europe. She found solace in travel and returned to America a healthy, happy woman. By this time, Isabella was known as Mrs. Jack. She had abandoned hope of motherhood, and had also abandoned conventions imposed on women of her class.

Newspapers carried sketches of her strolling with lions borrowed from the zoo. She drove horses and cars at breakneck speed. She smoked cigarettes. She went to boxing matches. She had a pair of large diamonds mounted on gold springs and wore them like antennae in her hair. Once, to attract notice to a concert by an unknown musician she favored, she stood at the door of the concert hall handing out programs. A passionate athlete and sports fan, she was seen at the symphony wearing a hatband inscribed ''Oh You Red Sox.'' A dahlia was named for her, as was a peak in the Isabella mountain range in Washington.

With her money she could have been the poster girl for the idle rich. Instead, she found her passion: collecting art. In 1917, she wrote to a friend:

"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."

In the late 1890s, Isabella and Jack rapidly built a world-class collection of paintings and statues, tapestries, photographs, silver, ceramics and manuscripts, and architectural elements such as doors, stained glass, and mantelpieces.

After Jack's death in 1898, she commissioned the construction of Fenway Court, a personal museum based on a Venetian palazzo, to house their vast collection. Involving herself in every detail of the design and installations, she personally supervised the placement of every last piece, and then took up residence in an apartment on the fourth floor.

When she opened her home to the public on New Year's Day in 1903, guests listened to the music of Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, gazed in wonder at the courtyard full of flowers, and viewed one of the nation's finest collections of art. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had been born.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

There was also a time when she offered the use of the third floor to John Singer Sargent as a studio. He painted several portraits at that location including the one of Mrs. Fenway and her daughter.

Isabella Inviting Guests to See Venetian Fireworks
gifted to her by Anders Zorn, 1894

In old age she practiced a miserly frugality that astounded her cold, hungry houseguests; she explained she was protecting the funds she intended to leave for the maintenance of her museum. Isabella died at Fenway Court on June 17, 1924 but she remains an ever-present force within its walls.

She ordered that all the art work must remain exactly as she arranged it. If it is moved or changed in any way, the entire collection must be sold. The museum appears much the same today as it did the day it opened.

The only changes are now the empty frames that once held a Vermeer, a Manet, three Rembrandt and five Degas works which were stolen in 1990. Two thieves dressed as police officers overpowered the guards and stole 13 works of art valued at around 300 million dollars. Despite a 5 million dollar reward, the art work has yet to be recovered, and remains the largest art heist in modern history. Is Isabella rolling over in her grave, or loving all the attention?!

To see photos of the absolutely beautiful museum that Isabella furnished to house her fabulous painting collection, see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Facebook page or go to their site at

Information from a variety of sources including:

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