Isabella Stewart Gardner

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Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888), by John Singer Sargent.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (April 14, 1840 – July 17, 1924), the founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, was a leading American art collector, philanthropist, and patron of the arts.

Isabella Stewart Gardner had a zest for life, an energetic intellectual curiosity and a love of travel. She was a friend of noted artists and writers of the day, including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Dennis Miller Bunker, Anders Zorn, Henry James, Okakura Kakuzo and Francis Marion Crawford.

The Boston society pages called her by many names, including "Belle," "Donna Isabella," "Isabella of Boston," and "Mrs. Jack." Gardner created much fodder for the gossip tabloids of the day with her reputation for stylish tastes and unconventional behavior. Her surprising appearance at a 1912 concert (at what was then a very formal Boston Symphony Orchestra) wearing a white headband emblazoned with "Oh, you Red Sox" was reported at the time to have "almost caused a panic", and remains still in Boston one of the most talked about of her eccentricities.[1]

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894), by Anders Zorn (Gardner Museum)


Isabella Stewart, daughter of David Stewart and Adelia Smith, was born in New York City on April 14, 1840. Her Stewart ancestry, by tradition, has a descent from King Fergus.[2]

Isabella married John Lowell "Jack" Gardner, son of John L. and Catharine E. (Peabody) Gardner of Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1860, in New York City and thereafter moved to Boston.[3]

Jack and Isabella had one son, John Lowell 3rd, who was born June 18, 1863. He died March 15, 1865. After his death, the couple was extremely distraught and started to travel and collect.[2] However, Jack's brother, Joseph P. Gardner, died in 1875, leaving three young sons. Jack and Isabella 'adopted' and raised the boys. Augustus P. Gardner was 10 years old at the time. Isabella's biographer, Morris Carter, wrote that "in her duty to these boys, she was faithful and conscientious."[2]

Travel and collecting[edit]

In 1874, Isabella and Jack Gardner went abroad, 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.

The earliest works in the Gardners' collection were accumulated from their trips to Europe especially, but also from such places as Egypt, Turkey, and the Far East. The Gardners began to collect in earnest in the late 1890s, rapidly building a world-class collection of paintings and statues primarily, and also tapestries, photographs, silver, ceramics and manuscripts, and architectural elements such as doors, stained glass, and mantelpieces. Nearly 70 works of art in her collection were acquired with the help of dealer Bernard Berenson. Among the collectors with whom she competed was Edward Perry Warren, who supplied a number of works to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Gardner collection includes work by some of Europe's most important artists, such as Botticelli's Madonna and Child with an Angel, Titian's Europa, and Raphael's The Colonna Altarpiece, and Diego Velázquez.

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, Gardner bought art and antiques, attended the opera and dined with expatriate artists and writers.

Museum creation[edit]

By 1896, Isabella and Jack Gardner recognized that their house on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay, although enlarged once, was not large enough to house their growing collection of art.

After John L. Gardner’s sudden death in 1898, Isabella Gardner realized their shared dream of building a museum for their treasures. She purchased land for the museum in the marshy Fenway area of Boston, and hired architect Willard T. Sears to build a museum modeled on the Renaissance palaces of Venice. Gardner was deeply involved in every aspect of the design, though, leading Sears to quip that he was merely the structural engineer making Gardner's design possible.

The building completely surrounds a glass-covered garden courtyard, the first of its kind in America. Gardner intended the second and third floors to be galleries. A large music room originally spanned the first and second floors on one side of the building, but Gardner later split the room to make space to display a large John Singer Sargent painting called El Jaleo on the first floor and tapestries on the second floor.

After construction of the museum was completed, Isabella Stewart Gardner spent a year carefully installing her collection according to her personal aesthetic. The eclectic gallery installations, paintings, sculpture, textiles, and furniture from different periods and cultures combine to create a rich, complex and unique narrative. In the Titian Room, Titian's masterpiece The Rape of Europa (1561–1562) hangs above a piece of pale green silk, which had been cut from one of Isabella Stewart Gardner's gowns designed by Charles Frederick Worth. Throughout the collection, similar stories, intimate portrayals, and discoveries abound.

The museum opened in 1903 with a grand opening celebration featuring a performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a menu that included champagne and doughnuts.

Gardner lived on the fourth floor when in residence at the museum. After her death, the fourth floor served for many years as residence for the museum's director; more recently it has been converted for use as museum offices.

Death and legacy[edit]

Gardner family tomb, Mount Auburn Cemetery

In 1919, Isabella Stewart Gardner suffered the first of a series of strokes and died five years later, on July 17, 1924, at the age of 84. She is buried in the Gardner family tomb at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, between her husband and her son.

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. A devout Anglo-Catholic, she requested in her will that the Cowley Fathers celebrate an annual Memorial Requiem Mass for the Repose of her Soul in the museum chapel. This duty is now performed each year on her birthday by priests of the Church of the Advent.[4]

The Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, sponsored by BOA Editions, is presented annually in her honor.[5]


  1. ^ Powers, John; Driscoll, Ron (2012). Fenway Park: A Salute to the Coolest, Cruelest, Longest-running Major League Ballpark in America. Running Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-7624-4204-1. 
  2. ^ a b c Gardner, Frank A MD [1933] Gardner Memorial : Biographical and Genealogical Record of the Descendants of Thomas Gardner, Planter of Cape Ann, 1624, Salem, 1626–74, Through His Son Lieut. George Gardner ISBN 0-7404-2590-0, ISBN 978-0-7404-2590-5
  3. ^ Louise Hall Tharp, "Mrs. Jack", Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 1965
  4. ^ Mrs. Gardner's annual claim on heaven
  5. ^ Poetry Foundation: Isabella Gardner


  • Shand-Tucci, Douglass. "The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner", Harper Collins, 1997

External links[edit]