Eccentric she was.A black sheep never quite accepted by Boston’s first families. Quirky. An only in America original. She had edge, she had flash; a dashing individualist Isabella Stewart Gardner “Mrs. Jack” startled Boston society by erecting a Venetian pleasure dome in the Back Bay and filling it with masterpieces for the public to enjoy….But unique she was…
She loved to travel anywhere. As a young matron, a series of lectures on Oriental art in her own Beacon Street home, inspired her to make a world tour with her husband. When they left, two carriage full of flowers followed them to the station, and it seems unlikely that any of the ladies of Boston sent any of the flowers to Jack; Isabella sent most of them herself from her own greenhouses. She toured Angkor Vat, which had been discovered only a few years previously. At another Cambodian ruin, the lady, whose favorite dish was cold corned beef and who adored beer, had champagne for breakfast, and noted in her diary that she “ate her first peacock.”
Some of Belle’s antics did her little credit. It is hard to explain why she thought it was necessary to feel the muscles of Sandor the Strong Man, or her playfulness with the lions at the Boylston Street Zoo. She once took two cubs driving in her carriage; one returned wearing a big bow of ribbon as a mark of her favor. On another occasion she narrowly escaped being clawed by the mother of three cubs. On still another she took a ferocious looking but perfectly harmless old lion for a stroll on a leash, to the consternation of other zoo visitors.
Given to the grand entrance, and the theatrical gesture, she once stepped up to soprano Nellie Melba after a concert at Fenway Court, removing a huge yellow diamond from her hand. “The was coveted by the King of Cambodia,” Belle declaimed, “but I have saved it for the Queen of Song!” This was pure corn and as carefully calculated in advance as the orchids on the palm trees in the court, but it made wonderful newspaper copy.
The there was her famous penance. Attended by her liveried footman and coachman, she drove up before the fashionable Church of the Advent just as Sunday morning services were about to begin. The footman filled a pail with hot water at a nearby mansion. Belle, traditionally decked out in sackcloth and ashes, swabbed down the steps on her hands and knees with laundry soap and water. This accomplished, she handed bucket and brush back to the footman, stepped back into her barouche, and clattered regally away.
In a way, she was a child that never really grew up; husband Jack bankrolled everything and when he died, the so-called “fascinating widow” was literally traumatized by the day to day payment of mundane invoices for maintenance, taxes and food. It was a panic from which she never quite recovered, turning her into a stinge over small trivial things as she aged. She had a $3 million dollar investment, book value at the time, yet wanted to avoid the expense of insurance.
In 1922 Sargent painted his last portrait of Belle, two years before she died. She was eighty-two then, and if she had not known the end was near the ghostly water color of her, shrouded in white, would have told the story. It may well be the masterpiece she hoped his earlier portrait by him of her was. There is a shuddering premonition of death, the ghastly pallor of the draperies, the eerie aspect of a subject whose eyes, alone, are alive.
Unlike other museums, nothing may be borrowed from the Gardner Museum, nor does it ever ask for the loan of anything. Even without jazzy hype, the museum is worthwhile as piece of cultural dialog, a piece of Americana that is both mirror and memorial to a fascinating woman and one of America’s truly great collections of art.