Shortly after returning from Boston, I discovered and read a book called Sargent’s Women by Donna M. Lucey. It profiles 4 women whom this master portrait painter depicted. Isabella Stewart Gardner is one of them. Lucey calls her “The Collector” and usually refers to her as Belle. I learned a lot about Gardner in the book and highly recommend it. However, if you want to read a lot about John Singer Sargent, you won’t be satisfied with this book. It’s mostly about the women, not him.
Gardner was from New York and only moved to Boston after she married. According to Lucey, Belle “built arguably the most fascinating and eccentric house museum in America.” She filled its courtyard with flowers and birds. Whistler, today’s resident canary, hangs out in the museum’s library. Lucey often remarks that Gardner was never accepted by Boston society because she was an outsider who delighted in outraging their sensibilities. She and her husband Jack had a son 3 years after marrying, but John Lowell “Jackie” Gardner died before his 2nd birthday. This caused a prolonged depression. A doctor finally recommended a trip abroad, and the Gardners became world travelers. They went to India, China, Egypt, etc. When Belle’s father died, he left her $1.6 million tax-free dollars. Not expecting to get it, she bid on and bought Vermeer’s The Concert with that inheritance and started collecting art. She and Jack fell in love with Venice, and the couple began going there about once a year. With her “rebellious spirit” she found Venice nothing like Boston. By 1898, the year her husband died, she had so much stuff that she decided to create a museum. Her husband had left her two million dollars, so she built a Venetian palazzo and filled it with 320 paintings, 400 pieces of furniture, etc. Lucey notes that her museum “breaks every rule of displaying art”, which is true.
John Singer Sargent painted Gardner twice. When she was 47, he did the first one. It hangs in her museum. In 1922 he painted her again at the age of 82. This time he used watercolor and Lucey notes, “Its insubstantial ethereal quality perfectly captures the ebbing away of one of the greatest spirits of the Gilded Age.” She lived 2 more years and wanted Sargent to serve as one of her pallbearers, but he was on a ship to England. Probably no one was surprised that she directed her pallbearers to “Carry my coffin high”.
If she had been alive when the robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum occurred, she probably would have solved the mystery of what happened to her stolen art works by now.