A legacy of longing, a gift of beauty

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/08/06/a-legacy-of-longing-a-gift-of-beauty/

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, also known as Fenway Court, is a calling card of sorts.   It reminds residents and guests from around the world of its former owner’s vivacious presence in more courteous times.

The exuberant Isabella began collecting the works now housed in the museum on her travels throughout Europe and the Far East with her husband Jack.  According to Donna Wayne, one of the docents who delivers inspiring gallery tours of the palatial Venetian styled museum, the permanent collection includes more than 2,500 priceless object d’art. Rare textiles, manuscripts, letters, sculptures, etchings, furniture, and paintings are housed within Fenway Court’s sun splashed, flower filled atrium and galleries.

Clues abound in the massive collection that the gregarious, flirtatious, and outrageous Isabella, in fact, suffered a lifetime of hidden sorrows. The woman who was driven to surround herself with beautiful clothing, jewelry, and things was thought of as ugly. Homeliness inspired her to sashay in provocative dresses, wear jewelry to draw attention to her décolleté, and cover her face with veils.

New York born Isabella Stewart married John “Jack” Gardner of Boston in 1860. Their marriage was the happy result of a school girl introduction by Julia Gardner, Isabella’s classmate and Jack’s sister. The marriage merged the couple’s mutual intellectual capacities and love of art with family fortunes – the Stewart’s from textiles and iron; the Gardner’s from the East India Trade Company, among others investments.

To celebrate John and Isabella’s marriage, Mr. Stewart bought the newlyweds a large brick manse in Boston’s fashionable Back Bay. They had intended to fill their home with rambunctious children. Instead, silence surrounded the couple, as the baby they longed for kept them waiting.  Multiple miscarriages went unmentioned. In polite society, it was better to attribute Isabella’s bed ridden days to mental collapse rather than to admit to a “woman’s illness.” When at last, darling son Jackie finally arrived, he lived only two short years.

Isabella’s grief was so intense that they called upon Massachusetts General’s Dr. Henry Bigelow, a scholarly surgeon and close friend, for help. It was the opinion of the esteemed doctor that Isabella should develop new interests as she would never have more children.  He prescribed, as was the custom among the well to do, a long journey to restore her health.

The heart broken couple traveled the world on extended expeditions, consoling themselves with new intellectually elite, artistic friends. They began to weave collecting opportunities into the fabric of a fun social life. So vast were their thoughtful acquisitions, the family of two realized they would be outgrowing their home on 152 Beacon Street. Together, they began to envision building a museum that matched Isabella’s newfound and unconventional zest for life with her penchant for collecting.

After Jack Gardner’s widowed brother, Joseph, passed away in 1875, the couple hurried home to “adopt” his three sons.  The couple embraced the boys as their own and devoted themselves to getting two situated in college and the youngest child, Gus, folded into the normal routines of children in 1875.

But grief struck again in 1898, when 61-year-old Jack Gardner passed away unexpectedly, leaving Isabella a single mother to 3 young men and the sole proprietor of the eclectic art collection.

In today’s vernacular we’d say Isabella reverted to power shopping as a coping mechanism. Her collection of masterpieces grew further with the help of John Singer Sargent and a socially ambitious art student from Harvard, Bernard Berenson. The collaborative bought masterpieces from cash strapped European royals and monasteries. The collection also included a child sized throne and sarcophagus in memory of Isabella’s many losses.

After Jack’s passing, Isabella was determined to ensure that their collection of treasures would remain in  Fenway Court in perpetuity, as she designed it.  She stipulated that any changes made to the museum after her passing would result in the entire collection being auctioned off in Paris, with all proceeds being donated to her husband’s alma mater, Harvard University. Today’s sensibilities may recognize these tyrannical constraints as another coping mechanism designed to bring order to the long secreted disorder of her life and to artificially create a legacy that, without children of her own, had seemed to elude her.

In accordance with Isabella’s demands, no gallery revisions have been made since the Gardner Museum was formally established in 1903. And twenty-five years after the 1990 theft of nine priceless masterpieces from her collection, the frames of the stolen art remain empty.

What remains is the everlasting calling card of a secretly sad cultural visionary, Isabella Stewart Gardener. Her unique sense of artistic style is underscored by her courage to remain engaging despite life long struggles with unspoken grief.  Isabella’s efforts continue to entertain, educate, and elevate the consciousness of Boston through musical concerts, lectures, and tours of Fenway Court.

Today, the Isabella Gardner Museum still welcomes friends to pay a call on Isabella’s palace.

Diane Kilgore is a Boston-area blogger.

Also by Diane Kilgore:

Daring to daydream at ‘Stickwork’ in Salem

Some necessary tick talk

Boston Public Garden: green en vogue