Book Review: “Isabella Stewart Gardner: A Life” — Less Intriguing But Even More Mysterious

By Peter Walsh

As befits an official biography, Silver and Greenwald approach their subject with decorum and respect: they neither hide nor emphasize potentially controversial elements, carefully outlining the sources of money in Isabella’s family and the old Boston Brahmin fortune of her devoted husband.

Isabella Stewart Gardner: A Life by Nathaniel Silver and Diana Seave Greenwald. Princeton University Press, 159 pages, $24.95.

In the Netflix fantasy series Locke & Key (based on the comic books of the same title), a magic key called the “Head Key” allows the characters to wander around each other’s minds, including their own. In vast, elaborately decorated interior spaces, each uniquely designed to tap into its owner’s special character, the Lockes and their friends examine memories in drawers or inside glass cases, piecing out the passions, dreams, and traumas of each of their lives. The danger is that you can get trapped in there, for years, or even forever.

The closest thing to that Head Key trip that I know of in real life is Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Starting at 14 or 15, I wandered many times through its rambling galleries and halls, arranged around the museum’s spectacular Venetian Gothic courtyard with its changing displays of living plants and flowers. I spent hours studying the European masterpieces on the walls and peering into the glass cases filled with reliquaries, chalices, letters, mementos, autographs, and photographs, examining the tables set with odd, mysterious objects, including bottles of sand, small books, and inscribed silver pots and vases. None of the Gardner’s contents were labeled or arranged in chronological order. Nothing was explained. Under the terms of Gardner’s will, nothing could ever be changed.

It wasn’t until I had actually visited Venice that I realized the Gardner Museum did not accurately reproduce a Venetian palazzo. In Venice, the palaces turn outward; the delicately shaped windows and balconies face the canals, most desirably, the Grand Canal, and overlook the never-ending parade of city life across the waters. The interior courtyards are functional and plain. Isabella turned all this inside out: blank, unwelcoming walls on the outside and the huge, lavishly decorated courtyard, warm and full of blooming flowers, color, and light on the coldest New England afternoon, at the heart of the place.

The whole spirals inward, away from its quotidian Boston neighborhood and the world beyond. You are never aware that you are inside Mrs. Jack’s head until you are wrapped in its ambiguous spell. Are you Isabella’s honored guest? Or her captive?

The centennial of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s death in 2024 is fast approaching, along with the centennial of the publication, in 1925, of her first official biography, written by Morris Carter, her longtime friend, former assistant director of the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Gardner’s first official director. The Gardner has decided to publish a new version, written by curators Nathaniel Silver and Diana Seave Greenwald, to, as director Peggy Fogelman puts it in her Foreword, “confront the myths, update Gardner’s story with new information, and respond to some of visitors’ frequently asked questions.” A sign of the times, among the latter is, “Did she, her husband, or their families enslave people?”

Isabella Stewart Gardner: A Life is short, 159 pages including notes and index, with perhaps half that space devoted to beautifully printed photographs. It is not a full-bore scholarly biography. Instead, it reflects a chapter in the museum’s official institutional history, produced, most probably, for sale to visitors and tourists in the museum shop, people who are intrigued enough to want to know more about the institution’s colorful founder, but not too much. The short format means that many side issues — Gardner’s wide-ranging friendships with Boston’s social, cultural, and intellectual elite, including Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton and Radcliffe College founder Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, wife of the celebrated Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, the painter John Singer Sargent, many other artists, musicians, and writers of her time, and a constellation of family members and their friends, and her involvement in other institutions and projects — can’t be covered except in passing. Instead, the book is focused on the slow germination and then the blossoming of the museum itself.

The usual take on Mrs. Gardner revels in her image as a classic Boston eccentric whose flamboyant, unconventional behavior for decades entertained her Back Bay neighbors and readers of the Boston press. In his recent biography of John Singer Sargent, Wellesley College professor Paul Fisher describes Gardner as “[i]mperious, wasp-waisted, phenomenally rich, festooned with pearls … a shapely, outrageous, and transgressive woman and perhaps even … an expressive adulterer.” Certainly, she appeared in the newspapers more often, and more prominently, than would have been considered proper in Victorian Boston society, or possibly even today. Along with art, she eagerly collected, it seems, every clipping that featured her, including one that features her walking a lion at the zoo, while destroying many or most of her own papers. She was happy to cultivate a larger-than-life public image as one of Boston’s best-known citizens. But she kept her private thoughts, for the most part, to herself — except as she expressed them, near the end of her life, in her museum.

As befits an official biography, Silver and Greenwald approach their subject with decorum and respect. They neither hide nor emphasize potentially controversial parts, carefully outlining the sources of money in Isabella’s family — New York New Money — and the old Boston Brahmin fortune of her devoted husband, John (“Jack”) Lowell Gardner Jr. Both families started as merchants: imported textiles (Scottish and Irish linens) and Sumatran peppercorns, among other things, and later moved on to investments in banking, finance, railroads, real estate, and local industry, though the Gardner fortune was by far the larger of the two.

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Gardner in White, 1922. Photo: Gardner Museum

After their marriage in New York (Isabella was still 19), the young couple moved into a handsome mansion on Beacon Street, the most fashionable address for the richest Brahmins, newly built on a tract of land Isabella’s father had purchased for the young couple. Isabella may have had some trouble adjusting to the small, closed circle of her Boston in-laws, possibly, Silver and Greenwald suggest, because she was unable to raise a family. There had at least one stillborn child and possibly miscarriages. Her only son, John Lowell Gardner III, died shortly before his second birthday. Later, she and her husband raised two orphaned nephews. If Isabella had been able to settle into a conventional family life, surrounded by children and then grandchildren, reinforced and validated by a traditional social role, would she have collected art so passionately, or built an art museum as her perpetual monument?

As she grew older and began to acquire art, Gardner found she also liked to “collect” younger men, including John Singer Sargent. He painted her more than once, the most famous example being the portrait he completed in 1888, when Isabella was already well into middle age. Of this commission, Silver and Greenwald write: “Sargent created a unique image that married Isabella’s interests in East and West. To Henry James it recalled a Byzantine Madonna with a halo, but to a collector of Japanese art it resembled Kannon, the [so-called] goddess of mercy.”

Though the painting seems mild enough today, at the time Mrs. Jack’s low cut, form-fitting black dress created a scandal comparable to the one Sargent’s Madame X set off in Paris a few years later. Possibly at the request of her husband, Isabella, for the rest of her lifetime, kept the portrait in a room not accessible to the public.

Fisher (but not Silver and Greenwald) recounts a spicier anecdote possibly illuminating Sargent’s relationship with Isabella. Ellery Sedgwick, future owner/editor of the Atlantic, recounted that, as a schoolboy, he was reading a novel behind some rolled-up mats in the Groton School gym when Mrs. Gardner burst in, hotly pursued by a laughing Sargent in a white-flannel suit. The 30-year-old artist pursued the Boston matron around the gymnasium’s running track to a conclusion Sedgwick did not observe, having escaped, in embarrassment, out an open window.

Both Fisher and Silver and Greenwald do describe one possible adulterous affair with a younger man. Francis Marion Crawford, 14 years younger than Gardner and a future successful novelist and prolific writer, was the nephew of her close friend Julia Ward Howe, best known for writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Neither Crawford nor Gardner attempted to hide the depth of their affection: the mementos of their relationship are publicly preserved to this day in the Crawford/Chapman Case in the Gardner Museum’s Blue Room. The most arresting artifact is an 1882 photograph showing their clasped hands. Crawford left Boston abruptly in 1883 and lived in Italy for the rest of his life, eventually marrying and fathering four children. Though other biographers are somewhat less circumspect, Silver and Greenwald conclude that “it remains unclear if the two had a physical affair.”

It’s easy to forget that Isabella lived most of her adult life on Beacon Street, surrounded by other Boston Brahmin families, in a house she and her husband later expanded to include the house next door, and at family estates in Brookline and Pride’s Crossing and a property in Roque Island, Maine. Her arts-collecting travels, on the other hand, extended from Europe to North Africa and eventually all the way to East Asia.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894, as painted by Anders Zorn.

In the last years of the 19th century, the idea for what became Fenway Court began to germinate. The collection had grown larger and more important, eventually including its greatest masterpiece, Titian’s Rape of Europa. Before the couple made definite plans, though, Jack Gardner died suddenly on December 10, 1898. Two weeks after his funeral, Isabella told her astonished architect, Willard T. Sears, that she had purchased a lot in Boston’s new Fenway neighborhood. Built on recently drained brackish marshland, the new development was intended to be a fashionable cultural/residential district. (Although the MFA and the short-lived Boston Opera were soon built nearby, the area never quite lived up to this promise. It was probably doomed by Boston’s financial collapse in the Panic of 1907.)

Isabella dropped tentative plans to create a museum in her Beacon street home and built a new museum from scratch. It was, Silver and Greenwald write, the “first purpose-built museum established in the United States by a woman.” By now, Gardner was just short of 60. Over time, she sold off all her other residences, devoting her considerable, but by no means limitless fortune to its creation and perpetuation into eternity.

Suitably for a book that is also a historical guide to the museum and its contents, Silver and Greenwald devote most of their time to the creation of the collection, the painstaking design and construction of Fenway Court, and the extensive revisions Gardner made after it was completed, including replacing the original Music Room with the present Tapestry Room and Spanish Cloister. They also illustrate and decipher some of those assemblages Gardner left, never to be altered, on tables and in glass cases around the galleries. (The bottles of sand, it turns out, are souvenirs of a trip to Egypt, and the inscribed silver vessels are agricultural prizes, won by Isabella’s grandmother.)

But the records Isabella left behind are patchy and incomplete. The circumspect Silver and Greenwald are loath to speculate on the missing pieces of the puzzle. For all her love of outrageous publicity and the scent of scandal, Mrs. Jack remains deeply elusive, her true inner life coded only into her museum. She leaves this meticulous new biography somewhat less intriguing but even more mysterious.

Peter Walsh has worked as a staff member or consultant to such museums as the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Boston Athenaeum. He has published in American and European newspapers, journals, and in scholarly anthologies and has lectured at MIT, in New York, Milan, London, Los Angeles and many other venues. In recent years, he began a career as an actor and has since worked on more than 100 projects, including theater, national television, and award-winning films. He is completing a novel set in the 1960s.

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