Isabella Stewart Gardner, born April 14, 1840, is primarily remembered as an art collector, philanthropist, and the founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. She was also known for her style and unconventional behavior which provided frequent material for gossip columnists.
Isabella and her husband, John Lowell “Jack” Gardner, first began to travel and collect after the death of their only son in 1865. They visited many places in Europe and the Middle East. After the death of Jack’s brother in 1875, they raised his three sons, but in the late 1880s and into the 1890s, they traveled extensively and greatly expanded their knowledge of other cultures and art around the world.
They collected primarily paintings and sculpture, but also tapestries, photographs, letters, silver, ceramics, illuminated manuscripts, rare books, and architectural elements. By 1896, their collection was too large for their home and they began to dream of building a museum. It was a dream that Isabella had to achieve on her own after Jack’s sudden death in 1898.
Isabella’s favorite place to travel was Venice, Italy, so she hired the architect Willard Sears to design a museum modeled on a Renaissance palace of Venice. She was closely involved in every aspect of the design. The building has three floors of galleries surrounding a glass-covered garden courtyard, and a fourth floor which served as a residence for Isabella and later for the museum director.
Once the museum was complete, Isabella took an entire year to install her collection, which contained more than 2,500 objects and over 7,000 letters. Some of the artists represented are Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler and Sargent. The museum was also the site of the single largest property theft in US history, when on March 18, 1990, thirteen works of art worth an estimated $500 million were stolen. To-date they have never been recovered.
On July 17, 1924, Isabella Gardner died at the age of 84. In addition to other sizable bequests, she left an endowment of $1 million for support of the museum.
Find out what else happened on April 14 in Women’s History.