...in 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner's newly completed home and museum was opened to the public for the first time. The grand building on the Fenway was the realization of Mrs. Gardner's dream to give Bostonians the chance to experience the work of the great masters. She herself had traveled all over the world, first to visit works of art and then to collect them. Enormously wealthy, she built a museum modeled on the Venetian palaces she so admired. Strong willed and high-spirited, she was a flamboyant figure on Boston's social scene. She threw elaborate parties, attended boxing matches, baseball games, and horse races. The museum she left the city remains one of its greatest cultural treasures.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was born into wealth and educated to be a model of Victorian womanhood. She married into the upper crust of Boston society, but she never felt bound by the conventions of her time and place.
Her behavior often raised eyebrows, but no one could deny that she had a zest for exploring new ideas and new cultures. Even more important, she had a vision and both the will and the wealth needed to realize it.
Her dream was to create a museum that would allow the people of Boston to experience great art in a personal setting in their own city. Gardner recalled, " I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art. . . . We were a young country & had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art. . . . So I determined to make it my life work if I could." Her Fenway Court, now called the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, opened in 1903 after five years of planning.
Isabella Stewart was born in New York City in 1840; her family had made a fortune in the Irish linen trade and mining investments. Like most upper-class young women of her time, she received a short formal education at private schools. At the age of 16, she accompanied her parents on a Grand Tour of Europe. During a later visit to Paris, she met John "Jack" Lowell Gardner, Jr., the son of one of Boston's wealthiest families. They were married in 1860 and moved into the Beacon Street house her father gave them as a wedding present.
Already flamboyant before her marriage, Isabella became even more so afterwards. She gave grand parties and frequently entertained the leaders of Boston's artistic, literary, and musical circles. Bright and intellectually curious, she embarked on a process of self-education, attending lectures at Harvard and reading widely.
In 1865 the Gardners lost their only child, a two-year-old little boy, to pneumonia. For the next two years, Isabella suffered from various illnesses, including depression. When the doctor suggested that traveling would revive her spirits, she and her husband set off on an extended trip through Europe. The treatment worked, and soon the Gardners began to go abroad regularly.
Not only was Isabella Gardner interested in different art forms, she also loved discovering different cultures. By the 1880s the couple was taking an art-exploration trip to Europe, the Middle East, India, or Asia once every two years. Although she was fascinated by all of these places, her favorite city was Venice. Her love for it would eventually shape the design of her museum.
In 1891 Isabella's father died, leaving her $1,600,000. Now she traveled not just to view art but to buy it. She hired Bernard Berenson, a brilliant young Harvard graduate, to advise her on foreign purchases. With his guidance, she accumulated an astonishing collection that eventually included paintings, furniture, textiles, and objects from all over the world. She especially admired European paintings and sculpture, and acquired works by Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, and Degas.
As Gardner's reputation as a serious collector grew, Bostonians were both fascinated and scandalized by her unorthodox behavior. She was an avid entertainer, and her parties were often the subject of gossip. She enjoyed going to the races, college hockey and football matches, even baseball games all activities that fell outside the sphere of a proper Boston matron. When questions arose about rumors and speculations surrounding her escapades, Isabella responded, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth!"
In 1888 she sat for the great Boston artist John Singer Sargent. The unveiling of the full-length portrait, with the low neckline of her dress and the sensuous curves of her figure, created a sensation. Her husband was so appalled that he forbade the painting to be publicly exhibited during his lifetime.
As she amassed her treasures, she displayed them in her townhouse on Beacon Street. By the mid-1890s, "Mrs. Jack," as she was often called, realized that her collection had outgrown her home. She and her husband began to plan a museum. The project was interrupted by Jack Gardner's sudden death in 1898.
The widowed Mrs. Gardner moved forward on her own, purchasing property along the Fens, a part of Boston just being developed, and hiring an architect. Not wanting to be separated from her collection, she had the building designed to include both museum galleries and her own sumptuous living quarters.
She personally oversaw every aspect of construction, nearly driving her architect to despair with constant changes, second thoughts, and her harsh treatment of the workers. But the finished product was remarkable. Gardner hated the dark mausoleum-like museums she had seen in Europe, so she created a light-filled Italianate palace with a central courtyard.
At a private party for friends on New Years Day 1903, "Mrs. Jack" staged a dramatic unveiling of her new home. Visitors mounted a wide flight of stairs to a balcony, where they heard members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform a short concert. Then a mirrored door opened to reveal the courtyard, lit by Japanese paper lanterns, with the galleries opening off of it. The newspapers reported the astonished and delighted reactions of the guests.
Isabella Gardner chose the arrangement and display of each piece of art to create a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the work. Believing that different forms of artistic expression enhanced one another, she hosted concerts, dance performances, and literary readings in the museum's central courtyard. In the courtyard, capped by a then-revolutionary glass roof, was a year-round Mediterranean garden filled with plants grown in greenhouses at her 40-acre estate in Chestnut Hill.
While Mrs. Gardner was alive, the museum was open to the general public only for several weeks in the spring and fall. Two hundred tickets a day were available at a cost of one dollar apiece. Gardner monitored the visitors herself, following the crowds through the galleries or watching from a balcony. At her death in 1924, her will revealed that Isabella Stewart Gardner had endowed the museum "for the education and enjoyment of the public forever."
Eye of the Beholder: Masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, ed. by Alan Chong, Richard Lingner, and Carl Zahn (Beacon Press, 2003).
Mrs. Jack: A Biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, by Louise Hall Tharp (Little, Brown, 1964).
The Art of Scandal: the Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner, by Douglass Shand Tucci (Harper Collins, 1997).