The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is at once an intimate collection of fine and decorative art and a vibrant, innovative venue for contemporary artists, musicians and scholars. Housed in a stunning 15th-century Venetian-style palace with three stories of galleries surrounding a sun- and flower-filled courtyard, the museum provides an unusual backdrop for the viewing of art. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's preeminent collection contains more than 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts, rare books and decorative arts. The galleries house works by some of the most recognized artists in the world, including Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler and Sargent. The spirit of the architecture, the personal character of the arrangements and the artistic display of the enchanting courtyard in full bloom all create an atmosphere that distinguishes the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as an intimate and culturally-rich treasure.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened to the public on the evening of January 1st, 1903, with a musical and visual arts celebration. Following an opening concert of Bach, Mozart, Chausson and Schumann performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, mirrored doors were rolled back to reveal the spectacular interior courtyard, brimming with flowers and dramatically lit with Japanese lanterns. Surrounding the courtyard, galleries displayed art in a highly intimate and personal setting. The evening was a dazzling celebration of music, art, history, innovation and beauty. In the words of William James, "The aesthetic perfection of all things seemed to have a peculiar effect on the company…It was a very extraordinary and wonderful moral influence…Quite in the line of a Gospel miracle!"
Fenway Court, as the museum was called at its inception, is the only private art collection in which the building, collection and installations are the creation of one individual. Isabella Stewart Gardner's vision that the museum remain as she arranged it "for the education and enrichment of the public forever" is reflected in every aspect of the museum. The museum's seal, designed by Isabella Gardner and Boston artist and designer Sarah Wyman Whitman, bears a phoenix (a symbol of immortality) above the phrase C'est mon plaisir ("It is my pleasure").
Today, as in Isabella Stewart Gardner's lifetime, the museum bustles with artistic activity and presents ongoing programs in celebration of historic art, contemporary art, music, education and horticulture.
Isabella Stewart Gardner amassed the bulk of her collection in a remarkably short period of time. Like many wealthy Americans, the Gardners bought paintings and objects to decorate their home. In the 1880s, Isabella Stewart Gardner attended lectures on art history and readings of Dante given by Charles Eliot Norton at Harvard College. This sparked a passion for Dante, and Isabella Gardner began to buy rare editions by the writer. She became a serious collector of Dutch and Italian pictures in the 1890s. Beginning in 1894, Bernard Berenson, then a young art historian, started to recommend Italian paintings for acquisition. He was just as new at this as Gardner was, but within two years he had guided her towards a collection that included Botticelli's Lucretia, Titian's Europa, Vermeer's The Concert, and Rembrandt's Self-Portrait. Berenson acted as a conduit for paintings that Colnaghi, a London dealer, had for sale; however, Isabella Gardner made her own decisions about what to buy. In 1896, Berenson facilitated the purchase of Titian's Europa, still heralded as the "most important work of art in Boston," by Boston-area museum directors (The Boston Globe, July 27, 2002).
The Gardners' travels through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe fostered an appreciation for different cultures. In 1867, the Gardners traveled to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna, and Paris, and crossed Norway to see the midnight sun. During 1882 and 1883, they traveled around the world, visiting Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia (where they rode on an oxcart through the jungles to see the ruins of Angkor Wat), Indonesia, India, Egypt, and Palestine.
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 for the new museum they were conceiving. At first, they asked an architect to design a completely new museum to be built on the same site. Although Jack Gardner died as these plans were being readied, Isabella Gardner realized their ambitions. Setting her sights on the Fenway, a formerly marshy area that had recently been filled, in 1898 she purchased a plot of land on which to build her museum. Architect Willard T. Sears drew up plans and construction of Fenway Court began in June of 1899. Isabella Gardner attended the driving of the first pile and visited the construction site regularly, carefully supervising every detail of the building. She climbed ladders to show painters the effect she sought for the interior courtyard and determined the placement of each architectural element. The building was complete by November 1901, and Isabella Stewart Gardner spent the following year carefully installing her collection. Gardner herself lived in an apartment on the fourth floor.
On January 1, 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner opened her museum for the first time, inviting friends to attend an evening reception and performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On February 23rd, Gardner opened the museum to the public. She ensured that her museum was the setting for artists, musicians and thinkers. John Singer Sargent used the Gothic Room as a studio. The famed operatic soprano Nellie Melba sang within the museum; Ruth St. Denis, an innovative modern choreographer, danced there as well. The Japanese art historian and critic Okakura Kakuzo (author of The Book of Tea) became especially close to Gardner and shared his knowledge about Asian spirituality, by for example, arranging an exhibition devoted to Japanese culture and performing the tea ceremony at the museum.
Isabella Stewart Gardner disliked the cold, mausoleum-like spaces of most American museums of the period. As a result, she designed Fenway Court around a central courtyard filled with flowers. Light enters the galleries from the courtyard and from exterior windows, creating an atmospheric setting for works of art. Love of art, not knowledge about the history of art, was her aim. Her friends noted that the entire museum was a work of art in itself. Individual objects became part of a rich, complex and intensely personal setting.
The museum also provides personal glimpses into the sensibilities and personality of Isabella Stewart Gardner, poignant testaments to her personal tragedies and triumphs. The loss of her only child at the age of two is suggested in the Spanish Chapel, opposite John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo (1882), a painting that celebrates the excitement of life. Titian's 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 Frederic Worth. Throughout the collection, similar stories, intimate portrayals, and discoveries abound.
Ten portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself are interspersed throughout the collection, including John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner(1888), Anders Zorn's Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894), and James McNeill Whistler's The Little Note in Yellow and Gold (1886). The sense of vitality and artistic flair that she found in Venice - and by which she lived her life - is eloquently captured in Zorn's Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894. Painted in the Palazzo Barbaro, the portrait captures the moment when Isabella Stewart Gardner, watching fireworks from a balcony, stood in the doorway, arms outstretched and invited her guests to join her to watch the display. Today, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's historic collection remains as Gardner created it, a collection of intimate effect and ongoing inspiration for visual, musical and horticultural innovation and scholarly thinking.
The museum which bears her name also stands as a testament to her vision. Isabella Stewart Gardner, known also as "Mrs. Jack" in reference to her husband, John L. ("Jack") Gardner, was one of the foremost female patrons of the arts. She was a patron and friend of leading artists and writers of her time, including John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Henry James. She was a supporter of community social services and cultural enrichment. She was an ardent fan of the Boston Symphony, the Red Sox, and Harvard College football. Isabella Stewart Gardner was also the visionary creator of what remains one of the most remarkable and intimate collections of art in the world today and a dynamic supporter of artists of her time, encouraging music, literature, dance, and creative thinking across artistic disciplines.
Over three decades, Isabella Stewart Gardner traveled the world and worked with important art patrons and advisors Bernard Berenson and Okakura Kakuzo to amass a remarkable collection of master and decorative arts. In 1903, she completed the construction of Fenway Court in Boston to house her collection and provide a vital place for Americans to access and enjoy important works of art. Isabella Gardner installed her collection of works in a way to evoke intimate responses to the art, mixing paintings, furniture, textiles, and objects from different cultures and periods among well-known European paintings and sculpture.
Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in New York City on April 14, 1840. She was the child of David Stewart, of Scottish descent, who made his fortune in the Irish linen trade and later in mining investments. Her mother was Adelia Smith, descendant of Richard Smith, an Englishman who had settled in Boston in 1650. She was named for her beloved paternal grandmother, Isabella Tod Stewart, herself a remarkable woman and successful farmer. (A portrait of her hangs in the museum.) Isabella Stewart Gardner was also a descendant of royal Stuarts (although this genealogy is spurious) and took great pride in this lineage.
Isabella Stewart was educated at private schools in New York and Paris. Her first connection with Boston came through her schooling, between 1856 and 1858 in Paris, where a friendship with schoolmate Julia Gardner led to her eventual marriage to Julia's older brother John ("Jack") Lowell Gardner Jr. (1837-1898) on April 10, 1860. The couple was married in New York City and moved to Boston, Jack's hometown, where they settled into a house, a wedding gift from her father, at 152 Beacon Street in the Back Bay section of the city. In June 1863, Isabella Stewart Gardner gave birth to a son, John L. Gardner III, known as "Jackie." At just two years of age, Jackie died of pneumonia in March 1865, and during the two years that followed his death, Isabella Stewart Gardner endured depression and illness. At a doctor's suggestion, John Gardner took his wife to Europe to travel throughout Scandinavia, Russia, Vienna, and Paris and, upon returning home, Isabella Gardner was in good health and spirits. Although the Gardners had no more children, they raised their three nephews following the death of Jack's widowed brother.
Isabella Stewart Gardner had a zest for life, an energetic intellectual curiosity, and a love of travel. In 1874, Isabella and Jack Gardner went abroad again, 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. Isabella Stewart Gardner wrote fervently about her travels, revealing a great deal about her personality and inspirations. 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, Isabella Stewart Gardner bought art and antiques, attended the opera, and dined with expatriate artists, writers, and gadabouts. Her love of the city and of Italian culture inspired the design of her museum.
Back in Boston, Isabella Gardner was an avid entertainer and frequent patron of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Gardners hosted dinner parties with well-known guests, including author Henry James, writer Sarah Orne Jewett, philosopher George Santayana, and writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, as well as friends and artists like John Singer Sargent. The archives hold more than 7,000 letters from 1,000 correspondents as testaments to Isabella Gardner's social nature. These include glowing letters of thanks for dinner parties, concerts, and celebrations in her magnificent palazzo ("Has the music room dissolved, this morning, in the sunshine? I felt last night as though I were in a Hans Anderson Fairy Tale, ready to go on a flying carpet at any moment," T.R. Sullivan, Jan. 10, 1902). Isabella Stewart Gardner was also interested in sports. She attended Red Sox games, boxing matches, and hockey and football games at Harvard College. She relished in horse races, particularly if her horse won. Her motto was "Win as though you were used to it, and lose as if you like it."
The local press was both fascinated and scandalized by her. Isabella Gardner did not conform to the traditional restraining code of conduct expected of Boston matrons in the Victorian era, but lived an engaging, exuberant life including much travel, entertaining, and adventure. She also had a sense of humor, however. Commenting on the numerous rumors and speculations about her escapades, many untrue, she is quoted as saying, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth." As Isabella Stewart Gardner approached the end of her life, her desire to leave an endowment for the preservation of the museum forced her to be more financially conservative, and she often complained that the robber baron collectors, J. P. Morgan, Henry Frick, and Peter Widener-the "squillionaires," as she called them-could outspend her on the acquisition of new works.
In 1919, Isabella Stewart Gardner suffered the first of a series of strokes and died five years later, on July 17, 1924. 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.
Isabella Stewart Gardner is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between her husband and her son.