The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1840-1924

Nationality: American
Date of Birth: 1840.04.14
Place of Birth: New York, NY
Date of Death: 1924.07.17
Place of Death: Boston, MA


Isabella Stewart Gardner ('Mrs Jack') was a collector, patron of the arts and Boston socialite. She was the daughter of David Stewart (of Scottish descent) who had made his fortune in the Linen trade and mining investments, and Adelia Smith. On 10 April 1860 she married John (Jack) Lowell Gardner (1837-1898), a successful Boston businessman. Their much-loved, only son, Jackie, died at the age of two in 1865. In 1919, Mrs Gardner suffered the first of a series of strokes that left her partially paralyzed, leading to her death in 1924.


In 1865, after the death of her son, Mrs Gardner's long period of depression was compounded by her inability to bear more children. On the advice of doctors, the Gardners undertook a European tour, which restored her zest for life and the intellectual curiosity that were to make her one of the most individual and gossiped about women of the Boston society set and 'Boston's most cherished institution', as she was described by the society gossip column of Town Topics. The Gardners made many subsequent trips and she started to collect on a large scale, often disapproved of by her husband for her expenditure. Her first acquisitions were gowns from Worth in Paris that scandalised Boston with their lack of hooped skirts, then jewels, and in the 1880s, on the advice of Harvard Professor Charles Eliot Norton, rare books and manuscripts. Her collection of Old Master paintings began seriously in 1888 when she bought a Madonna by Francisco de Zurbarán, and from this point onward, the collection of fine art was uppermost in her interests.

In 1887 Isabella Gardner had financed a trip to Europe for the recent Harvard graduate Bernard Berenson. The publication of his Venetian Painters of the Renaissance in 1894 led to the renewal of their acquaintance. Berenson became her advisor and agent in the purchase of Italian old master paintings ranging from Giotto to Titian, many of which are now deemed priceless. This partnership proved highly profitable for them both and lasted until Mrs Gardner's death thirty years later. With the purchase in 1896 of important works by Rembrandt, Velázquez and Cellini she began to formulate the idea of building a museum to display her treasures to the public.

However, she was not just a collector of the past, but a patron of the present. She actively encouraged emerging talents in music and painting, particularly the work of contemporary American artists like John Singer Sargent, Thomas Dewing and Dodge MacKnight. She met JW in 1879 and he was one of the first contemporary artists she collected. She was buying JW's work from the mid-eighties (Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville (YMSM 64), Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Battersea Reach (YMSM 152), Blue and Orange: Sweet Shop (YMSM 263)) and collected some splendid drawings (Brown and gold - Holland (M.979) Blue and silver - Holland (M.980); Brun et argent: La Hollande (M.981); Gris et jaune: Hollande (M.982); Blue and Violet. Lapis Lazuli (M.1070); The Violet Note (M.1081)). She also owned lithographs and etchings, including Twelve Etchings from Nature, 1858 (the 'French Set', K.9-11, 13-17, 19, 21, 22, 24). (excat 3), A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames, 1871 (the 'Thames Set') (K.38-44, 46, 52, 66, 68, 71, 74-76, 95) (excat 4), Mr Whistler's Etchings of Venice, 1880 (the first 'Venice Set') (K. 183-189, 191-195). (excat 5) and A Set of twenty-six etchings of Venice, 1886 (the second 'Venice set') (K.196-216, 233-237). (excat 6).

In October 1886, Mrs Gardner spent two weeks in London and commissioned a pastel portrait, Note in Yellow and Gold: Mrs Gardner (M.1116). On their European trips, the Gardners usually called on JW, attending his Sunday breakfasts. After visits to his studio they generally left with a pastel or painting. JW wrote that her 'appreciation of the work of Art is only equalled by her understanding of the Artist' (I.S. Gardner Museum; #09117).

When first married, the Gardners built 152 Beacon Street, Boston which was designed by John H. Sturgis. The house became famous in Boston society for the Gardners' patronage of musicians, writers and artists. On a visit to Venice in 1884, the Gardners stayed with the Curtis family at Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal, a house which saw much of the Anglo-American society set, painters and writers pass through its doors. When Mrs Gardner began to discuss plans with her architect Willard T. Sears for Fenway Court, Venice was to provide the main inspiration. However, she envisaged the building not so much as a palace, as it came to be called, but rather a grand town house which could be turned into a public museum after her death, with the top floors as her private apartments. Surrounding the central courtyard with its fountains and seasonal flowers, are grand salons on three floors, named to describe some of their contents, for example, the Titian, Gothic, Dutch and Raphael rooms, Spanish Cloister and Chinese Loggia.

Mrs Gardner welcomed her first visitors to the museum on New Year's Day, 1903. The museum is now open all year round, yet appears almost exactly as the original visitors experienced. Each room is like an elaborate, empty stage set, the exact placing of the pieces decided upon by Mrs Gardner over a period of months. In fact, by the terms of her will, no rearrangement, no additions, no withdrawals are permitted, unless they are strictly temporary; the penalty being sale by auction in Paris, the proceeds to go to Harvard University. Unlike other museums, there are few labels and no barriers, yet to maintain Mrs Gardner's idiosyncratic arrangement, moveable objects are bolted to surfaces and some of the dark red floor tiles are painted orange, like marks on a stage, to indicate exactly where chair legs should go. Glass cases hold displays of letters, including those by JW, as well as one of his canes. Mrs Gardner's unassailable position as the 'Queen of Holy Back Bay' living in her self-made palace is encapsulated by her portrait by Sargent (1888) that hangs in the Gothic Room of Fenway Court. In this image she stands with her famous pearls around her waist, against a backdrop of Italian 15th century brocade which forms a halo around her head. It is not surprising that her commanding presence inspired Bourget to write of her as an 'idole americaine', a goddess to whom men devoted their labours.


Gribbon, Deborah, 'Whistler's Sketch of an Unfinished Symphony,' Fenway Court: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 1980, pp. 26-33; Anon., Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Guide to the Collection, Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, n.d., 3d Edition; Hendy, Philip, European and American Paintings in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, reprint, corrected, Boston, 1974; Tharp, Louise Hall, Mrs. Jack: a Biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Boston and Toronto, 1965; Carter, Morris, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Fenway Court, Boston and New York, 1925; Carter, Morris, 'Mrs. Gardner and the Treasures of Fenway Court,' Art News, XLV, March 1946, pp. 2-6; Bourget, Paul, Outre-Mer: Impressions of America, 1894, pp. 106-9).