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Mrs. Gardner built a house of art unlike any in the world.
A portrait of the founder by John Singer Sargent. Isabella Stewart Gardner. 1888, oil on canvas. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
If anyone had a vision for making the arts accessible to people, it was Isabella Stewart Gardner. Born in 1840 in New York to a wealthy family, Isabella was educated privately, and her first tour of Europe in 1854 nurtured what became her lifelong passion: the arts.
In 1860, she married John Gardner of Boston. Though Isabella shared John's privileged heritage, she never felt accepted by members of Boston's aristocracy. She developed a sensitivity to others who felt alienated, namely artists.
When their two-year-old son died in 1865, Isabella was immensely grieved. In response, she traveled to Europe with her husband and again was absorbed by the art there. They returned to Boston in 1868 where "Mrs. Jack" earned a reputation as a sought-after hostess. She entertained, gardened, decorated, and traveled, building her creative perspectives and inviting artists, writers, and musicians to their home whenever possible, a tradition she never gave up.
Isabella had become a serious collector of great art by the late 1880s. When her father died in 1891, he left her an inheritance from which she could fund her astonishing collection.
Her collecting career assumed new urgency, however, when her husband died suddenly in 1898. Again, Isabella turned to art for comfort, this time by purchasing the land on which the museum now stands. With the steadfast goal of opening her home to the public, she immersed herself in the design and construction of a home, garden, and gallery that would house her unique collection for guests to enjoy. She featured Venetian terraces, a four-story courtyard, art and music galleries, a top-floor apartment where she lived, and even a private chapel - with decorative arts from east and West.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened in 1903. For the next 16 years, she continued to add objects, but stipulated in her will that everything must stay exactly where she placed it, with no additions. And so, the unconventional and generous mentor to such writers and artists as Henry James and John Singer Sargent built a house of art unlike any in the world.
Shortly after Christmas in 1919, Isabella suffered a stroke, but her spirit remained vital until her death in 1924, at age 84. Her enduring passion for art can be seen in the diverse collection that remains untouched at her home, a legacy that goes beyond the walls of the museum that bears her name.