Energetic and self- possessed, Isabella Gardner was a New Yorker who cut her own path in Boston, breaking the establishment rules in dress, social practice, and collecting. Her marriage to Jack Gardner, a Boston Brahmin, brought her to the top of Boston's social hierarchy and gave her the freedom to shape her own role as a visible patron of advanced art. She is "the most dashing of fashion's local cynosures," as one critic put it, "who can order the whole symphony orchestra to her house for a private musicale."
Diva and muse, she gathered about her a circle of artists, writers, and musicians—young men whose careers she championed, who kept her up with their work and who were drawn to her larger- than- life persona. "She lives at a rate and intensity," Berenson wrote, "and with a reality that makes other lives seem pale, thin and shadowy." But after three de cades in Boston, Gardner still described herself as a "New York foreigner." Indeed, Boston society never embraced her, and she in turn exploited her outsider identity to fullest advantage. If Bostonians frowned on extravagance, she spent freely on clothes, jewelry ($83,000 on a necklace and a ruby ring), and concerts. By traveling frequently in Europe and making a habit of summers in Venice, she joined a circle of influential American expatriates, including not only John Singer Sargent but also James McNeill Whistler and Henry James, who in various ways encouraged her collecting.
In 1886, Henry James had taken Isabella Gardner to Sargent's London studio specifically to see the notorious portrait Madame X. Far from frightened off, Gardner commissioned Sargent to paint her own portrait, which he began immediately after he finished painting Elizabeth Marquand. Where he had portrayed the wife of the Metropolitan Museum's president conventionally and naturalistically, as an American aristocrat smiling and seated in a chair, he turned Isabella Gardner into an icon, a symmetrical image set before a hanging of Venetian brocade with a radiating pattern of red, ochre, and gold, designed to convey her singularity as a devotee and patron of art. She stands, facing us straight on in a long black dress with a low neck and short sleeves, her shoulders drawn back and her hands clasped so her white arms form an oval. Henry James suggested the artifice of the Sargent portrait when he described it as a "Byzantine Madonna with a Halo." Sargent showed the portrait in his first American exhibition at the St. Botolph Club on Boston's Beacon Hill, entitling it "Woman, an Enigma." What shocked Boston were the ropes of pearls around Gardner's neck and waist, and the décolletage of the dress. In her slightly parted lips and her bold gaze, Sargent also suggested Gardner's engaged presence and quickness of mind. The artist painted the portrait six years before Gardner bought the Vermeer, but his tribute to her as a high priestess of art was one she embraced. Her appetite for art was not a pose but a passion; aestheticism became the guiding principal of her life. Given money, she acquired paintings, sculpture, antique furniture, and other decorative arts—casting herself by means of her collection as a Renaissance patron, and taking the domestic environment to which she as a woman was restricted and turning it ultimately into a public space designed to display art and express herself as a collector. "Mrs. Gardner's collecting seems to have been part of a strategy" the art historian Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt has written, "that developed to win for herself as a woman, albeit a rich and powerful one in Victorian Boston, the freedoms, the self-definition, and—crucially—the social and intellectual respect which she believed her Renaissance woman models to have enjoyed."
Later, when Gardner built the museum where she also lived, she placed above the door a coat of arms, with a phoenix, and into the stone carved the words "C'est Mon Plaisir"—It Is My Pleasure. The phrase was not simply a declaration of ego ("the justification for her every action," as one biographer put it), but resonated with the aestheticism of the nineteenth century and summarized the creed that art above all involved sensuous plea sure and spiritual enlightenment.
In December 1894, four months after Berenson had written Isabella Gardner about Lord Ashburnham's Botticelli, they met in Paris and went to the Louvre together. The following day, she agreed to buy the painting from him for 3,000 pounds, or $15,000—more than twice what she had paid for the Vermeer. The Death of Lucretia was the first Botticelli to travel to America. The painting was richly colored—a scene with small figures set in an open square framed by monumental classical buildings. Lucretia is a young woman in a green dress prostrate on a tomb, a knife in her chest, surrounded by soldiers who have discovered her suicide. In addition to conveying the emotion of the charged encounter, Botticelli also conclusively demonstrates his abilities to create the illusion of space with linear perspective in the setting of the scene. Later, the art historian Laurence Kanter described it as "certainly one of the great masterpieces of Florentine painting from the last years of probably its greatest period, the golden age of the fifteenth century." With the Botticelli, Isabella Gardner took American collecting in a new direction, and her collaboration with Bernard Berenson began. She enlisted him as a scout for Old Masters and agreed to pay him a 5 percent commission on the price of each purchase. As dealers typically charged commissions of 10 percent when they acted as brokers, she thought she was getting Berenson's advice for a bargain. At least in the short run, she would be wrong.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Old Masters, New World by Cynthia Saltzman
Copyright © Cynthia Saltzman, 2008