Art In History Art Blog
by art_in_history , November 7, 2007—12:00 AM
Isabella Stuart Gardner, one of the foremost collectors of art of her period at the end of the 19th century, was not primarily a patron of contemporary artists. She did purchase the work of living artists, including her portrait by John Singer Sargent, but her collecting focused primarily on artists of the European Renaissance. She was, however, a patron of another kind. She was a patron of the Renaissance specialist and connoisseur, Bernard Berenson, supporting him in his travels in Europe in search of art, and buying almost seventy works through his efforts.
Isabella was born in New York city, but, in marrying John Lowell "Jack" Gardner, married into one of the oldest Boston families. Jack's grandfather was the Salem shipping tycoon, Joseph Peabody. At first Isabella was not easily accepted into Boston society, but after the couple returned from extended travels in Europe, she established herself as one of the foremost hostesses in the city. Isabella, sometimes called "Belle" or "Mrs. Jack", began seriously collecting in the 1880's, with the support of her husband. She built Fenway Court, modeled after a Venetian Renaissance palace, to house her collection as well as to be her residence; it currently houses the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum.
Bernard Berenson began his searches for Isabella soon after his graduation from Harvard. He established his home in a villa overlooking Florence, known as "I Tatti", which became a mecca for famous visitors to the city. Isabella's collection, not surprisingly, is strongest in the Italian Renaissance, Bernard Berenson's area of special expertise, but it also included major works of the northern Baroque including Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer. Some of these, including the Vermeer, were taken in one of the most celebrated art thefts of all time, and have not been recovered.
Isabella began allowing visits by the public during her lifetime, reserving the upper floor for her living quarters. By the terms of her will, everything must be left just as she hung it. This makes a visit to the Gardner a special treat. It has escaped becoming a "scientific museum", with everything perfectly hung, perfectly lit, perfectly researched and labeled. The visit is still as much to her home as to her art collection. The magnificent central courtyard with its great skylight, in addition to being a wonderful ambience for the mosaics and sarcophagi of the ground level, is a presence in every gallery, on every floor. Unlike the experience in most great museums, where you can place yourself in relation to the whole only with a map; in the Gardner museum you are always aware of your orientation to the court and thus to the whole.