Isabella Stewart Gardner: The Art Collector With a Unique Vision

With her bold personality and individual approach to art collecting, Isabella Stewart Gardner is legendary for her Boston museum, which was later the site of a famous art theft.

Mar 20, 2023By Alexandra Kiely, BA Art History (with honors)

isabella stewart gardner art collection vision


Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) was a New York-born society woman who became one of America’s greatest art collectors. Working first with her husband Jack and then solo, the intellectual and well-traveled Gardner eagerly amassed an eclectic grouping of fine and decorative arts, which now forms the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Everything within, not just the art, but also the architecture, interiors, and curation, was intentionally designed by Gardner and has never been changed. Although far from history’s only significant female art collector, Gardner was one of the few to establish a personal museum that carries her name.


Who Was Isabella Stewart Gardner?

Adolf DeMeyer (1868-1949, Paris), Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1906. Platinum print. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.


Isabella Stewert Gardner (1840-1924) was one of the very first American art collectors of either gender to leave behind her own public museum, but her legacy has unfortunately been overshadowed by a sensational theft that occurred decades after her death. With her big, theatrical personality, Isabella Stewart Gardner perfectly matched her native New York, where she was born to a wealthy merchant family. However, she didn’t fit nearly so well in conservative and polite Boston, where she moved after marrying John “Jack” Lowell Gardner II (1837-1898), the son of a prominent old Boston family, in 1860.


Opinionated, intelligent, and enthusiastic in her many pursuits, she was once called one of the seven wonders of Boston. Although her fellow Bostonians didn’t quite know what to do with her, she eventually left them a great gift in the form of a highly unique and world-class art museum.


Isabella’s Travels

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice by Anders Zorn, 1894. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.


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Gardner had loved traveling ever since spending three years studying in Paris as a teenager. However, her international adventures really began in 1867, when she and Jack took an extended European tour as a way of recovering from the devastating loss of their infant son. The couple never had any other children, but they did raise Jack’s three orphaned nephews.


This was only the first big trip of many, in which the couple didn’t limit themselves to the typical grand tour stops. Although they certainly spent time in fashionable, western-European cities like Paris and Rome, they also visited China, Japan, Southeast Asia, the northern reaches of Russia and Scandinavia, Egypt, the Middle East, and more. Their eclectic and geographically-diverse art collection makes sense in light of these itineraries.


Italy seems to have been their favorite destination, where centuries of princely collections and palazzos clearly influenced Isabella’s vision for her future home and growing collection. During her travels, she befriended expat American writers and artists, like James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and Henry James. At home, she moved within Boston’s high intellectual society and even attended lectures at Harvard. The influence of scholar Charles Eliot Norton led her to study and collect rare books and illuminated manuscripts. It also led her to meet young art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, who became her primary art advisor and facilitated many of her most notable acquisitions.


The Collection

Inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Raphael Room, Photo by Andre Carrotflower, via Wikimedia Commons


As a collection established during the Gilded Age and housed in an Italianate mansion, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is most typically associated with Old Master paintings. This is only partially correct. The Gardner does indeed contain a spectacular collection of Italian Renaissance and other Old Master artworks, including paintings and drawings by Botticelli, Titian, Rembrandt, Veronese, Carlo Crivelli, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Boucher, Durer, Vermeer, Rubens, Holbein, Velazquez, Giotto, and even a drawing by Michelangelo.


However, it also includes a great deal else, works by 19th-century masters like Delacroix and Courbet and then-modern artists like Sargent, Whistler, Swedish painter Anders Zorn, Manet, Degas, sculptor Paul Manship, Henri Matisse, and Russian Avant-Garde artist Leon Bakst. Sargent and Zorn both painted now-iconic portraits of Gardner herself. There are also countless other examples of diverse art objects from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East from antiquity through the 19th century. These include illuminated manuscripts and printed books, tapestries and rugs, architectural fragments, large and small-scale statuary, religious artworks and furnishings, textiles, stained glass windows, furniture, metalwork, and more. Nobody could ever accuse Gardner of being a narrow-minded collector.


Fenway Court

The celebrated courtyard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, photo by Andre Carrotflower, via Wikimedia Commons


The Gardners first started thinking about building themselves a custom-designed museum and home in 1896, as their collection began to overflow their existing Beacon Street residence. They chose a piece of land on Boston’s Fenway, a former swamp that had been drained and turned into a park thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted. Then, they took another Italian sojourn specifically to gather ideas and objects for their new project.


However, Isabella was forced to undertake the rest of the process on her own after Jack’s sudden death in 1898. She bought the Fenway land and got to work on the museum mansion she named Fenway Court, applying her usual imagination and determination to architecture and exhibition design. Although she hired architect Willard Sears to consult, Gardner herself designed the building. She was also actively involved in supervising the construction, reportedly occasionally going so far as to climb up the ladders to supervise (or perhaps micromanage) masons and painters, winning structural arguments against building inspectors, and generally ensuring that her vision would be accurately realized down to the very last detail.


Lion statues flank the entrance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans, via Wikimedia Commons


Fenway Court is an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo inspired by Gardner’s Italian journeys, particularly her multiple stays in Venice’s Palazzo Barbaro. It had three floors of galleries designed exclusively to display the collection and a fourth-floor residential suite where Gardner lived there from 1901 until her death. An inwardly focused structure with a rather subdued façade, the heart of the building is the grand indoor courtyard surrounded by four Venetian palazzo-style facades.


Rooms on all stories look out into it via balconies inset with pointed arches. The courtyard is festooned with plants and antiquities and topped by a skylight four stories above the floor. The building also contains multiple cloisters, a chapel, a Chinese loggia, a salon, and many other rooms filled with historical textiles, stained glass, tapestries, painted panels, architectural fragments, decorative arts, and furnishings from Europe, Asia, Byzantium, and the classical world. Antique architectural elements like columns, arches, choir stalls, and fireplaces are often installed directly into the fabric of the building.


Although some rooms have clear themes, most include surprisingly-harmonious juxtapositions of greatly divergent objects. Gardner does not seem to have harbored any ambition to paint or sculpt, but the architecture and decoration of Fenway Court represent her own artistic masterpiece.


The Museum

A view of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Museum New Wing, photo by jess_melanson, via Flickr


Gardner seems to have envisioned Fenway Court primarily as a museum from the start. Only the fourth floor was ever a living space. The majority of the building was designed exclusively for artistic display. In 1900, Gardner chartered her museum for the purpose of art education, especially by the public exhibition of works of art. She first opened her art collection to the public in 1903, albeit only for a few days a year.


Almost as interested in music as she was in art, she began hosting concerts and other performances in her home around the same time, although she eventually turned her purpose-built music room into a Spanish-style cloister to display John Singer Sargent’s Spanish dance-themed El Jaleo. Although Gardner continued adding to her collection and modifying her arrangements throughout the two decades she lived at Fenway Court, everything froze after her death. In her will, Gardner required future generations to keep all aspects of her collection exactly as she left them. The museum is forbidden to acquire, remove, or relocate any objects and even make changes as small as adding wall labels. The penalty for doing so, according to the will, is the museum being closed and the entire collection sold off. The museum is to be run Gardner’s way or not at all.


John Singer Sargent (1856-1925, Florence), Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888. Oil on canvas. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.


Obviously, this doesn’t leave a lot of room for new ideas, and the collection is far too rich to do anything that would risk causing its demise. Therefore, Gardner’s home and collection do, in fact, largely remain just as she left them, with 13 notable exceptions we’ll address in a minute. The museum also honors its founder’s memorable and quirky personality by doing things like installing nasturtiums in the museum courtyard and holding a mass in the chapel for her birthday and offering free admission to anyone named Isabella. In keeping with Gardner’s interest in music and theater, the museum also continues to host concerts and performances.


In 2012, however, the museum inaugurated a modern New Wing designed by Renzo Piano for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and performances. Since the New Wing is not adjacent to Fenway Court, only a glass corridor connects the two, courts allowed this change without destroying the will. Proponents of the decision, like then-museum director Anne Hawley, have argued that branching out into contemporary art was merely continuing Gardner’s own patronage of contemporary art and artists in her own time.


Hawley also inaugurated an artist-in-residence program that allows select artists to live and work on the site as Gardner did for John Singer Sargent during one of his Boston periods. His studio was in the Gothic Room, which subsequently displayed his iconic portrait of Gardner. Although not nearly as controversial as the changes made to the Barnes Foundation, this addition had its fair share of detractors. Unfortunately, the addition is far from the most sensational thing to happen at the Gardner since its founder’s death.


Theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Blank frames honoring stolen Rembrandts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, photo by Chris Dignes, via Flickr


When most people hear the name Isabella Stewart Gardner, they immediately think of an event that occurred over half a century after her death, the infamous Gardner Heist. In the early morning of March 18, 1990, a team of thieves broke into the museum, overpowered the night guards, and made off with thirteen artworks. The loot included several paintings by Rembrandt and Degas, a Vermeer, and other treasures. None have ever been recovered, though the authorities continue to solicit tips about their whereabouts, and no suspect has ever been charged. A series of empty frames on the Gardner’s walls honor these lost treasures, whose fates remain unknown.


The losses are unfortunate, but the fact that this sensational crime has overshadowed Isabella Stewart Gardner’s legacy in the public eye is perhaps even more lamentable. Gardner was a bold and intelligent woman who had a unique vision and the guts to carry it off at a time when few women would have done such things. She deserves to be remembered and admired for much more than being the victim of a posthumous crime.

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By Alexandra KielyBA Art History (with honors)Alexandra is an art historian and writer from New Jersey. She holds a B.A. in Art History from Drew University, where she received the Stanley Prescott Hooper Memorial Prize in Art History. She wrote her honors thesis on the life and work of early-20th century art theorist Roger Fry. Her primary interests are American art, particularly 19th-century painting, and medieval European art and architecture. She runs her own website, A Scholarly Skater, is a regular contributor to DailyArt Magazine, and has written two online courses. Alexandra enjoys reading, ballroom dancing, and figure skating.