A bowl of fresh violets, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s favorite flower, in accordance with her custom, is kept besode her favorite painting- a somewhat effeminate Christ Carrying the Cross which she bought as a Giorgione despite Bernard Berenson’s advice: “unquestionably genuine… a sublime illustration rather than a great work of art… not the kind of think I think of for you. The picture still bears Giorgione’s name, an attribution with which expert Lionello Venturi agreed although Philip Hendy ascribed it to Palma Vecchio. However, an art gallery is not a barrel of apples, and a few disputed pictures do not spoil the many certified by Berenson which are precisely what they are represented to be.
Morris Carter, Gardner’s biographer, said “Love of art, not knowledge about art, was her aim.” All of Fenway Court is, as she intended, a mirror of her tastes and interests, and he added, ” Every detail speaks of the fun Mrs. Gardner had in doing it.” This in itself was a fresh approach to custodianship of great art in America in the early years of the twentieth-century. Belle personally supervised every detail of the construction from the day the ground was broken, when she found her first four-leaf clover. It is still preserved at Fenway in a crystal locket together with a relic of Saint Clare.
During the construction she engaged a Boston building inspector in pitched battle with the haughty announcement that ” It will be built as I wish and not as you wish.” It was too. Chauffeur-driven from Beacon Street daily, she brought her own lunch, contributed to the workmen’s fund for beverages, and worked as hard as anyone on the job. Her favorite foreman was an Italian trumpet player named Bolgi. With him she devised a system of alarms by which he sounded one toot on the trumpet for masons, two for steam fitters, three for plumbers, four for carpenters, etc.
“She almost literally supervised the laying of every brick.” To get a desired wall color, “she herself climbed the ladder, and dipping a sponge first in a pail of white paint and then of red, proceeded to splash it on.” She once telephoned her architect’s office that she had fired a plumber, adding that if another was not on the spot within the hour she’d get a new architect.
Before the opening night she even pretested the acoustics of her Music Room before a foolproof audience- children from the Perkins Institute for the Blind. They came on a rainy afternoon, stacked their rubbers neatly where they could be found at the concert’s end. An unthinking butler or footman scooped them all up from the hall and stacked them in the closet. The resulting confusion was something Belle remembered with horror for years afterwards. As an old lady she sometimes used to ask visitors to her collection anxiously: “Have you got your rubbers?”
By this time Mrs. Jack had become a living legend in Boston. The days when she, then Isabella Stewart, had been sent to Paris finishing school seemed as remote in time as a Zurbaran. At the Paris school she met Back Bay’s Julia Gardner; their fathers- two lonesome businessmen who were happy to be able to speak American to each other, also became friends.
Belle came to visit Julia in Boston, and her brother Jack, who was a former Harvard student, fell madly in love with the guest, an infatuation from which he never recovered. Neither did the rest of the sedate Gardner clan. When Julia came to New York to return the visit, Mr. Stewart took the girls to a minstrel show, sending word backstage that he hoped there would be no coarse jokes that evening because Miss gardner of Boston was in the house.