Museum  October 12, 2022  Megan D Robinson

The Life and Collection of Isabella Stewart Gardner

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Photograph of Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1888

Famous for founding the Stewart Gardner Museum with her husband John L. “Jack” Gardner, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) was a renowned nineteenth and early twentieth-century Boston art collector, art patron, and philanthropist known for her keen love of and appreciation for art, culture, and architecture. 

From a well-to-do Scotch-English family based in New York, Stewart Gardner traveled through Italy with her parents during her last two years of Parisian finishing school. Passionate about art, and inspired by the beautiful Milanese villas open for public viewing, she told a friend she eventually wanted to establish a museum.

Following their marriage, the Gardners settled in a fashionable neighborhood in Boston. After their two-year-old son died tragically of pneumonia, and Stewart Gardner suffered a miscarriage, their doctor advised traveling to help with her depression. Enthusiastic travelers, the pair took dozens of trips all over the world over the course of ten years.

Photo: Sean Dungan, 2018.

Raphael Room. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Intelligent and curious, Stewart Gardner had an eye and passion for art and design. She quickly became involved with artists and intelligentsia, hosting dinner parties, salons, and lectures. Inspired to join the Dante Society by Harvard’s first art history professor, Charles Eliot Norton, she began collecting rare books and manuscripts in 1878 and began seriously collecting paintings in 1881. Her collections also included sculptures, tapestries, furniture, and decorative arts. 

On an 1886 visit to Venice, they met preeminent Renaissance authority Bernard Berenson, who became Stewart Gardner’s chief art purchase advisor. Berenson helped her become the first American to purchase a Sandro Botticelli. Stewart Gardner also developed long-term connections with numerous contemporary artists, many of whom she mentored.

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

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

The Stewart-Gardner’s first future museum purchase was Rembrandt’s 1629 Self-Portrait. After an inheritance from Isabella’s father made construction financially feasible, they began researching sites and built a four-story Venetian-style villa in the Fens to house and share their art, with their private residence on the fourth floor. They traveled to Europe, collecting Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance architectural pieces—including columns, balustrades, windows, doorways, and reliefs—for the museum construction. It is a testament to Stewart Gardner's design skills that these eclectic elements all work together harmoniously.

After John Lowell Gardner’s unexpected death in 1898, Isabella Stewart Gardner moved forward with the purchase herself. Deeply involved in the Museum’s construction, she visited daily, even demonstrating the proper plastering technique for mottled pink stucco, hacking an overly smooth Gothic beam with an ax, and designing the now iconic plant-filled Courtyard. Construction began in 1899, was completed in 1901, and opened to the public in 1903.

Photo: Sean Dungan, 2017.

Courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

The Museum’s collection, with works ranging from the 1st to the 21st century, includes over 7,500 artworks in a variety of media, 1,500 rare books, and 7,000 archival objects from Europe, Asia, and America. Over 200,000 people visit annually.

In 1990, in one of the world’s most famous unsolved heists, 13 pieces were stolen from the Museum. The investigation remains ongoing, with a $10 million reward for information leading to the artwork’s safe return.

For more information, visit https://www.gardnermuseum.org

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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