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Gardner, Isabella Stewartfree

(14 April 1840–17 July 1924)
  • Martin R. Kalfatovic

Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Photograph of a painting by John Singer Sargent.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112024).

Gardner, Isabella Stewart (14 April 1840–17 July 1924), patron of the arts and museum founder, was born in New York City, the daughter of David Stewart, an importer and businessman, and Adelia Smith. Educated at a series of private girls’ schools in New York, Gardner (known as “Belle” from early childhood) was sent to a French Protestant school in Paris at age sixteen. Her parents soon joined her in Paris, where the Stewarts befriended the family of John L. Gardner, a Boston businessman involved in shipping. Belle Stewart and Julia Gardner, a girl of her own age, quickly became close friends.

The Stewart family returned to New York in 1857. Visiting her friend Julia Gardner in Boston soon after, Belle Stewart met John Lowell “Jack” Gardner, Jr. The vivacious but not conventionally beautiful Belle was a dramatic change from the small circle of Boston society women Jack Gardner had known. Belle was equally taken by the quiet young man, and the two were soon engaged and married in 1860. After a honeymoon in Washington, D.C., the couple moved into an apartment house—then a “European” novelty—in Boston while their new home, a gift from Belle’s father, was being constructed on the newly reclaimed land of Back Bay. The couple moved into the house in 1862.

Holding with the strong anti-Lincoln feelings common among many merchants, Isabella Gardner was ambivalent about the Civil War and in later life refused to comment on the era, claiming she was “too young to remember” it. Jack Gardner, like many of his class and station, avoided service by purchasing a substitute. Despite the war, the Gardners’ shipping, and later railroad, business prospered. For the young bride, however, her “crass” New York origins excluded her from the decorous circles of young Boston matrons, and she escaped into a series of convenient illnesses. In 1863 Gardner gave birth to a son, but the couple’s happiness was short-lived when the boy died in 1865. Gardner soon after suffered a miscarriage, and the couple were to have no more children.

Depressed and convalescing from her miscarriage, Gardner was cared for by the noted Boston physician Henry J. Bigelow. After nearly two years in which she showed no sign of recovering her lively personality, Bigelow prescribed a European trip. Carried on board a ship in New York, Gardner disembarked under her own power in Hamburg, and she and her husband began a grand tour of seven countries, including Germany, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Russia, and France. While in Paris on this first trip, Gardner became a customer of the transplanted English fashion designer Charles Worth, who clothed her with the new off-the-shoulder, tight-fitting gowns that would raise eyebrows in Boston when she returned in 1868.

After the great Boston fire of 1872, Jack Gardner and his father began an insurance company, and the fortune of the families increased dramatically. In 1873 Isabella Gardner’s art collection began modestly with the acquisition of a small painting from the Barbizon School by Emile Jacque. The next year the couple took an extended tour of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Turkey. When Isabella Gardner’s brother-in-law and his wife died suddenly in 1874, the Gardners became guardians of their three nephews.

On a trip to London in 1879, the Gardners met James McNeill Whistler, who painted a portrait of Belle Gardner. Also on this trip, she met Henry James. Though James and Gardner had grown up within blocks of each other in New York, they had never before met. The two became close friends and frequent correspondents for the remainder of James’s life. By the end of the 1870s Gardner also formed a close friendship with the young novelist Francis Marion Crawford. The relationship attained the status of scandal in 1881 when Crawford became a neighbor of the Gardners. Boston society felt there was more than mere friendship between Gardner and the novelist and gossiped about the “improper” nature of the relationship. Partially to defuse the growing scandal, the Gardners embarked on an around-the-world voyage in 1883.

After first crossing the United States, the Gardners continued on to China, Japan, and Indochina, where they became among the first Americans to visit the temple complex of Ankor Wat. Traversing India, they made their way to Europe, stopping in Venice, where they took up residence at the Palazzo Barbaro, which became their home whenever they visited Venice. Upon her return to Boston, Gardner became an active patron of music, supporting local musicians and sending others to Europe for study.

Gardner first met John Singer Sargent in 1886. When Sargent visited Boston again the following year, he painted a portrait of Gardner. This portrait was exhibited at the St. Botolph Club in Boston, and the stunning work, showing Gardner in a low-cut gown gazing directly at the viewer, was a controversial sensation. Gardner’s husband had the painting withdrawn from the exhibition and refused to allow it to be shown publicly during his life, denying even Sargent’s request to show it at the Paris Salon.

On their 1888 visit to Europe, the Gardners visited Spain, at that time slightly off the usual tourist trails. Gardner became enamored of the art and crafts of Spain. Thus, when in 1890 Sargent returned to the United States from his own stay in Spain, Gardner was interested in acquiring his masterpiece of frenzied motion, El Jaleo. The painting had already been sold to Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, a relation to Gardner by marriage. In 1915 Coolidge gave Gardner El Jaleo after seeing the “Spanish Cloister” space in the museum she had created for it.

Though Gardner had been acquiring art works on a small scale since 1873, it was jewels, particularly pearls and rubies, that commanded her collecting zeal until the early 1890s. During their visit to the Palazzo Barbaro in 1892, however, the couple began to actively collect both fine and decorative arts. That same year, while in Paris, Gardner acquired Vermeer’s The Concert, a work that united her two loves of music and painting. In 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Gardner admired the work of the Swedish-born artist Anders Zorn. She purchased one of his paintings and introduced him to Boston society.

Earlier in 1887 Gardner helped send the young art critic Bernard Berenson to Europe to study and to partake in a general course of self-improvement. She would continue to contribute to Berenson’s European education for a number of years. After falling out of touch, Berenson contacted his patron with an offer to help her acquire Botticelli’s The Tragedy of Lucretia. Berenson acted as Gardner’s agent and adviser for the remainder of her life. Berenson often exercised undue influence on those he advised. With Gardner, however, he met his match. “Do bear my purse in mind,” Gardner wrote to Berenson on 1 January 1897, “and beat down the people who have what I want; for I must have the picture!”

Acquiring the unique Rembrandt, Storm and Sea, in early 1898, Gardner’s pleasure in this acquisition was eclipsed by the death of her husband on 10 December 1898. Jack Gardner left a significant fortune of more than $2 million to his widow. The Gardners had planned to remodel their Beacon Street house as a museum. Soon after her husband’s death, however, Gardner contacted the architect, Willard T. Sears, and ordered him to start afresh with plans for a new structure to be built on a site in Boston’s Fenway.

Gardner was intimately involved in the design and construction of Fenway Court, exasperating both the architect and workers with her imperious orders. Construction began in 1899 and continued for the next four years with Gardner not only supervising but also taking part in the “mason-work, the plastering, the carpentry, and in the carrying out of multitudinous details.” On 5 December 1900 the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was chartered.

The opening of the museum on 1 January 1903 was a major social event with music by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and all of Boston society present. It opened to the general public on 23 February. Though Gardner had to weather some early controversy surrounding the museum and her policy of charging a small admission fee, the museum, which doubled as her residence, was soon a popular tourist attraction. On her last trip to Italy in 1906, Gardner saw a number of works that would complete her museum. Over the next few years, she acquired, among others, a number of the Barberini tapestries and Piero della Francesca’s Hercules.

On Christmas Eve in 1919, Gardner suffered an embolism that paralyzed her right side. Only her friends and family knew about her condition for nearly two years until it was announced in the Boston papers. When John Singer Sargent visited her in 1922, he painted her last portrait, a delicate watercolor of the collector swathed in white. Gardner died in Boston.

To maintain her vision of her museum, Gardner stipulated in her will that Morris Carter should continue as director for life. Gardner’s vision of a complete, aesthetically unified exhibition space that included decorative arts, architecture, literature, and music as well as the fine arts would be her legacy to the world. Unlike the many eclectic collections formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the works in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have stood up to rigorous academic reevaluation.


Extensive manuscript sources for Gardner and her museum, including travel diaries, letters, and guest books, are held in the archives of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. The correspondence of Gardner and Bernard Berenson is collected in The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887–1924, with Correspondence by Mary Berenson, ed. Rollin van N. Hadley (1987). Morris Carter’s Isabella Stewart Gardner and Fenway Court (1925) provides firsthand details of Gardner’s life by one who knew her and is extensively documented with quotations from family papers. A primary biography is Louise Hall Tharp, Mrs. Jack: A Biography of Isabella Stewart (1965). Town Topics covered Gardner’s active social life from 1885 forward. Sylvester Baxter, “An American Palace of Art,” Century Magazine, Jan. 1904, pp. 362–82, gives numerous details on the building of the Gardner Museum. Eleanor Palffy, The Lady and the Painter (1951), is a fictionalized account of Gardner and John Singer Sargent. An obituary is in the New York Times, 18 July 1924.