The Scandalous Legacy of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Collector of Art and Men

Long before the gallery she built was famously robbed, Isabella Stewart Gardner was shocking 19th-century society with her disregard for convention.

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Dec 3 2015, 5:15pm

Image via Wikipedia

The first time I encountered Isabella Stewart Gardner was the way most people do: through her museum. The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is located near Fenway Park in Boston, just a short walk from the Museum of Fine Arts. Gardner loved the Red Sox; her feelings about the MFA were a little more complicated.

I initially visited the museum in April of 2014—shortly after Gardner's birthday, which is celebrated each year in the Episcopalian Chapel in the museum as stipulated in her will. I walked through the museum with my friend, marveling at the art and at the museum itself, which Gardner had built as her legacy. She had a heavy hand in the design of the building, and her biographer Louise Tharp Hall recounts how she would visit the construction site once a day, often jumping in to show the workers exactly how she wanted things done.

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Gardner acquired and arranged each piece of art in the museum and then put it in writing that if anyone were to move anything, the museum would have to give everything to the MFA and shut down permanently. This was a lady who knew what she wanted.

The arrangement is an enigma—style, artists, eras and countries collide in each room. Eventually, my friend and I separated and I found myself alone in Raphael Room. It's a space strewn with religious iconography, white-faced Virgin Marys clinging to their sons. But the centerpiece of the room is Botticelli's The Tragedy of Lucretia. The painting tells the story of a virtuous noble woman who was raped. She then commits suicide, taking the narrative of her life into her own hands.

The museum is predicated on three layers of mystery.

The room overwhelmed me. From scanning a brochure quickly before exploring the museum, I knew that Isabella's son died only a few months before he turned two. I had only recently given birth to my son and witnessed a dear friend lose hers. With that constant jerk and slack on the rope of life—loss and gain—I felt like I understood Isabella, and I related to all those pictures of mothers holding their doomed sons. A few moments later, though, a kind security guard told me that the key to understanding the rooms was looking at where the eyes in the paintings were directed. I learned later the guards here all have their pet theories about the art and Isabella; this theory was the guard's alone. But it was enough to make me think that maybe I had been wrong.

I am not the only one confused. The museum is predicated on three layers of mystery. The first mystery is the mystery of art itself—what does this painting mean? Why this scene? What are the symbols in the art? The second mystery is Isabella—why did she put these paintings together? What was she up to? What does this say about her and her legacy? And the third mystery is the art heist.

Early Life

Isabella Stewart was born in New York City on April 14, 1840 to David Stewart and Adelia Smith. Her father made his money trading textiles and iron. Young Isabella was reportedly a spirited child who got into trouble frequently. Once, she tried to run off to watch the circus and had to be dragged back home, sobbing, by a servant. She attended schools in New York and Paris and traveled with her parents to Italy, where she lost herself in the world of art and wrote to a friend that one day she too hoped to fill a home with art and antiques so others could enjoy them.

A few years later her school friend, Julia Gardner, introduced Isabella to her brother John Lowell "Jack" Gardner, a banker and a staid member of Boston's upper class. He was rich enough to pay someone to fight for him in the Civil War. They married in 1860. Their son, John Lowell Gardner III, was born on June 18, 1863. He died two years later and Isabella was bereft. On the advice of a physician, her husband took her to Europe. The story is that she had to be carried onto the ship on a mattress.

During this time, as you may notice from the dates, America was losing sons by the legion during the Civil War. Body for body, it was America's deadliest war. But Isabella never mentioned this time in her life. In an effort to control how she was remembered she spent a lot of time burning letters and documents about herself. In her later years, she once famously noted that she was "too young" to remember the Civil War.

Patricia Vigderman, in her book The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, speculates that Isabella's reluctance to discuss that time in her life may be more because she was consumed by personal tragedy at the time. While Vigderman doesn't excuse her silence about a tumultuous time in America's history, she does note that "it does reflect an ability to keep renewing oneself in difficult circumstances." And that is exactly what art helped Isabella do. Together, she and her husband toured Norway, Russia, Austria, and France and began collecting art.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894), by Anders Zorn. Image via Wikipedia.

The Great Men

Isabella began collecting other things too—namely men. She created herself a coterie of artists and writers such as John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, and Henry James. Most of her biographers agree that her relationships were all intellectual—her relationship with F. Marion Crawford, a popular Victorian novelist, caused quite a stir, but nothing besides the tongue-clicking of Victorian ghosts remain to suggest any sort of true scandal. (Isabella did burn all her letters, after all.) In her biography Mrs. Jack, Louise Tharp Hall relates a scene in which Isabella and Sargent played sort of tag down the hall with one another. Crawford's letters recount that she and Sargent read Dante together.

Gardner once remarked, in response to gossip about her, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth."

In The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Douglass Shand-Tucci pieces together old rumors, scandals, and whispers from long-dead pearl-clutchers to argue that Isabella was an early champion of gay rights. Many of the men she surrounded herself with were gay. In 1875, she and Jack adopted their nephews after their father, Jack's brother, committed suicide. Years later, the older son would commit suicide as well. Shand-Tucci offers evidence that this was over his love for another man. True or not, Isabella would have loved the gossip. She obsessively saved newspaper clippings of her exploits and once remarked, in response to gossip about her, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth."

Vigderman offers another sort of explanation for Isabella collecting men like she collected art—access. She writes, "To enjoy the wider world, women needed links to men who were conversant with it." And Isabella was hungry for the world.

Courting Scandal

Isabella smoked cigarettes, and the newspaper ran stories claiming she had taken zoo lions for a stroll in the park. A dahlia bears her name, and so does a mountain peak in Washington. She once shocked all of Boston Society by showing up to the Boston Symphony Orchestra bearing a headband that declared, "Oh you Red Sox." She invited the Harvard Football team to her home after they beat Yale. She hosted a boxing match at her home and, while the men fought, she danced. She had two large diamonds attached to wires and wore them bouncing in her hair. At the opening of her museum, she served champagne and donuts. The woman courted the world, and the world courted the woman.

Henry James, a member of her coterie, once remarked that Isabella "is not a woman, she is a locomotive—with a Pullman car attached." James often made such underhanded compliments about Isabella, yet he constantly found himself drawn to her. He didn't think she was particularly intelligent. He found her to be a little too forceful, yet he wrote, "how fond of her one always is for the perfect terms one is on with her, her admirable ease, temper and facilite a vivre." As Vigderman told me in an interview, "Whatever else she was, Isabella was fun." The essayist John Jay Chapman described her as "a fairy in a machine shop." The famous Sargent painting of her—in a long black dress, with just the hint of cleavage and a patterned background that lends her both a halo and a crown—shocked Bostonians so much that her husband asked that she not have it displayed. After he died, she put it up in the Gothic room, where it looms high over all the other paintings. Her glowing skin seems to hover away from the canvas.

Detail of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888), by John Singer Sargent. Image via Wikipedia.

But that is Isabella through the eyes of others—men. Her art and her museum are the only way to see her the way she wanted to be seen. "C'est mon plaisir" is the motto that sits above her museum: This is my pleasure. This is my delight.

And yet, her narrative thread of whatever story she is telling is hard to follow. Vigderman writes in her book, which seeks to access and understand Isabella, "Isabella Gardner appears not to wish me to complete her. Burning her private papers, exerting control over the future of each piece in her collection, she does not want to be a character in my story."

And in this way, Isabella resembles the modern woman. While we edit our narratives through social media, Isabella carefully curated her life and her presence though gossip and through her museum. Vigderman noted that everything she left behind was part of a performance. "Isabella was both flamboyant and private," she said. Searching for clues about Isabella in the museum is a bit like discussing the nature of Lady Gaga based solely on her meat dress or Kim Kardashian on her Instagram feed—it's both compelling and off-putting, intimate and tightly controlled.

Even as I sat in the Raphael Room and felt a connection with a woman who had died 90 years before I walked into her home, I felt foolish for defining her on my terms alone. There was so much more to all of it. John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo hangs in a nook on the first floor of the museum. It takes up the whole wall. The painting is breathtaking and coy: a woman dancing alone to the accompaniment of men. It's off kilter. The dancer's arms are loose and wild. I don't think I could move my arms that way. I've tried over and over. Although her face lies mostly in the shadow, her mouth gives off an expression that crosses centuries. It's a woman who has no fucks to give. El jaleo means "the ruckus."

El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent (1882). Image via Wikipedia.

Empty Frames

And Isabella was a ruckus. Even today, Isabella can raise some eyebrows. Her art collection was acquired through the art broker Bernard Berenson and many individual pieces were smuggled into the country. She looted the treasures of other nations to build her own collection. She viewed it as "saving the art"—an attitude that's at best a cultural condescension, at worst imperialism. She isn't easy to love sometimes.

She flaunted convention, but burned her letters. She wanted to be remembered but on her own terms. She was bold and a lover of reinvention, but her museum remains static, frozen forever in place. Like Lucretia, she turned on herself. I can understand why. She wanted to tell her own story. Not Henry James' version, nor Crawford's, nor even Sergeant's or Whistler's, but her own. As a result, she invites intimacy, but only up to a point. Just try looking for clues to the exact nature of her relationship with F. Marion Crawford. She is both inviting and inscrutable, just like the art that hangs on her walls.

And then, there is the robbery. In 1990, two thieves stole what is estimated to be $500 million in art from her museum—including five Degas, two Rembrandts and a Vermeer. The art has never been recovered and remains one of America's most enduring unsolved mysteries. The frames now hang in the museum like orbless eyes, and the story of the heist dominates the story of Isabella.

In 1990, two thieves stole $500 million in art from her museum. The art has never been recovered and remains one of America's most enduring unsolved mysteries.

Like so many people, I am obsessed with the Gardner Heist. But I hate talking about it in relation to the woman. It seems just another way of defining a woman by what was taken rather than what remains. While the heist of the Gardner museum is the largest art heist in America. In his book The Gardner Heist, Ulrich Boser argues that the theft is felt deeply and personally—not only by the staff and the city of Boston but by art lovers everywhere.

And yet, it was those empty spaces that allowed Isabella to become who she became. Vigderman notes that while Isabella the person and the museum have suffered greatly, what is more telling is how they transformed. Isabella used the power of art to transform herself into more than just a motherless son, or the center of society gossip. Similarly, in 2012 the museum transformed itself by opening a 70,000-square-foot addition designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano.

So what are we left with? The same mystery that started this. That's Isabella though. Even years after her death, no matter how you piece her together, the only narrative she fits in is her own.