Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Harvard Connection.
John Singer Sargeant, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888, (Gothic Room, ISG cm 1888), oil on canvas, 190 x 80 cm.
Bernard and Mary Berenson, postcard showing BB at 21/Harvard 1887 and 71/Settignano, I Tatti archives, Gelatin silver process on paper, 135 x 84 mm.
If collecting tendencies at the MFA resemble a kaleidoscope, than art acquisition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum might be compared to a telescope trained on one particular object: the Italian renaissance. The daughter of David Stewart who made his fortune in Irish linen and mining investments, Isabella was the first American collector to hit on the idea of housing valuable works of art in a palatial setting. Although she was very rich, Isabella was not in the class of what Mary Berenson called the “squillionaires” like J.P.Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Moreover, unlike those magnates, she had come under the influence of Harvard connected scholars like Charles Eliot Norton who supervised her reading of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, and who seems to have been instrumental in bringing Isabella and Berenson together at a Dante lecture, probably 1886, though Norton held negative views towards the young Jewish scholar. In the broader context of American artistic culture, Norton was important because he sought to civilise a go-getting society represented by Morgan and co, and stem the tide of “modern materialism.” Ironically, he also may have set the stage for the wholesale plunder of European art with the American cheque book, to recall a phrase from Henry James. From 1894 Isabella was advised by Bernard Berenson who came to Harvard in 1884, and who along with wealthy taste makers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, had all been greatly affected by writers in Europe like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, authors appealing particularly to the feminine community of Boston. As a letter to Isabella proves, Berenson read Pater’s The Renaissance avidly and soaked up its atmosphere of dreamy aestheticism much to Norton’s disgust. Reading Pater and studying Italian renaissance art helped Berenson to form what he believed to be “good taste” which he used to penetrate the upper reaches of Boston society, and to subsequently direct its aesthetic education from his villa in Italy. Berenson was part of the new cognoscenti who had no problem with the acquisitiveness of the super-rich since his livelihood depended on it, but he sought to make them cognoscenti, those in the know. If there is a paradigm for Isabella’s collecting and her museum, and others like her, it is the turning of American plutocrats into discerning connoisseurs, which she undoubtedly became with Berenson’s and other’s help.
“Lady Isabella of Fenway Court”.
Exterior View of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Fenway, Boston.
|Palazzo Barbaro, Venice.|
With her purchase of a Rembrandt Self-Portrait, a Titian and a Velazquez, all in 1896, Isabella and her husband Jack sought a new site for the growing collection. This turned out to be Fenway Court, in a newly designed area of Boston. Fenway Court was the name for the museum during ISG’s lifetime, a building that adhered to renaissance building principles with the bedrock more than 90 feet down (in accordance with a Venetian palazzo). With the tragic death of her husband Jack in 1898, Isabella threw herself into the construction of her museum, which she oversaw in every detail right down to the plumbing and plastering! Having inherited $1.75 million from her father, Isabella was able to travel extensively, experience different cultures, and most importantly continue to build up a distinctive collection of art to house in her palace. In her mission Isabella was helped by a number of knowledgeable scholars, connoisseurs including Berenson who became her chief advisor, although as Goldfarb points out, Isabella had an independent mind and didn’t always follow Berenson’s advice as in the case of a Watteau the scholar wanted her to buy. Berenson would seek new wealthy patrons when his relationship with Isabella became strained and she reduced her purchases.
An interesting strand of scholarship has appeared about the origins of Isabella’s Fenway Court in recent years. Robert Colby has argued that the building was an “expression of cultural re-enchantment” linked with the romantic proclivities of individuals in Berenson’s Florentine circle.Partly as result of visiting the monastery of Monte Oliveto, and partly as the need to create a space into which the world did not rudely intrude, Berenson and his associates dreamt up an imaginary community, Altamura. The phrase means “high walls” and the architectural nature of Gardner’s new palace may indicate the influence of “Altamura”, a realm of aesthetic contentment inhabited by a cultural elite. Wether true or not, Gardner’s own version of “Altamura” would lose its privileged status and open to the public in 1902.
Assessing the Gardner Holdings.
Botticelli, The Story of Lucretia, 1496-1504, Tempera and oil on panel, 84 x 180 cm,(Raphael Room, ISG bt on BB's advice).
Raphael, Pietà, c. 1503, Oil on wood, 23.5 x 28.8 cm, (Raphael Room, ISG, bt. on BB’s advice).
|Michelangelo, Pietà, (Short Gallery ISG ) c. 1538, Black chalk, 295 x 195 mm|
Rembrandt, Storm on the Sea of Galilee, (Dutch Room, ISG, stolen in 1990), 1633, Oil on canvas, 160 x 128 cm
John Singer Sargeant, El Jaleo, (Cloisters, ISG, acq about 1914), 1882, oil on canvas, 237 × 352 cm.
1) Exterior View of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Fenway, Boston.
2) John Singer Sargeant, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888, (Gothic Room, ISG cm 1888), oil on canvas, 190 x 80 cm.
3) Bernard and Mary Berenson, postcard showing BB at 21/Harvard 1887 and 71/Settignano, I Tatti archives, Gelatin silver process on paper, 135 x 84 mm.
4) Botticelli, The Story of Lucretia, 1496-1504, Tempera and oil on panel, 84 x 180 cm,(Raphael Room, ISG).
5) Raphael, Pietà, c. 1503, Oil on wood, 23.5 x 28.8 cm, (Raphael Room, ISG, bt. on BB’s advice).
6) Michelangelo, Pietà, (Short Gallery ISG ) c. 1538, Black chalk, 295 x 195 mm.
7) Rembrandt, Storm on the Sea of Galilee, (Dutch Room, ISG, stolen in 1990), 1633, Oil on canvas, 160 x 128 cm
8) Jan Vermeer, The Concert, (Dutch Room, ISG, stolen in 1990), 1665-66, Oil on canvas, 69 x 63 cm.
9) Titian, The Rape of Europa, (Titian Room, ISG, acq 1896), oil on canvas, 178 × 205 cm.
10) Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lady in Yellow, 1888, (Yellow Room, ISG, acq 1888), oil on wood, 50. 2 x 40 cms.
11) Degas, Mme Gaujelin, 1867, (Yellow Room, ISG, acq 1904) ,Oil on canvas, 61.2 x 45.7 cm.
12) James McNeil Whistler, Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, 1865, oil on canvas, (Yellow Room, ISG), 49.5 x 75.5 cm.
13) John Singer Sargeant, El Jaleo, (Cloisters, ISG, acq about 1914), 1882, oil on canvas, 237 × 352 cm.
14) Anders Zorn, Mrs Gardner in Venice, 1894, (Short Gallery, ISG pt in Venice same year)), oil on canvas, 91 x 66 cm.
 Hilliard T. Goldfarb, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, (Yale University Press, 1995), 3.
 Rachel Cohen, “Bernard Berenson at Harvard.” http://berenson.itatti.harvard.edu/berenson/items/show/3022
 For the influence of Wilde on the American art scene, see Sarah Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (Yale, 1996).
 Goldfarb, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 16.
 Brewer, The American Leonardo, 79-80.
 Goldfarb, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 68.