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Monday, September 10, 2012

September 10, 2012: Isabella Stewart Gardner

[There are few Boston sites that I would more highly recommend for a fall visit—for anybody, from tourists to lifelong residents, students to seniors, and American Studiers of all varieties—than the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this week’s series, I’ll be blogging about five topics connected to the Museum and its historical and cultural contexts. Please add your responses, and your suggestions for other unique American sites and experiences, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the inspiring life and the legacy of the woman herself.
On the surface, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s life would seem to exemplify an upper class experience of Gilded Age America. Born into a wealthy New York family, she married into an even wealthier one—her husband John “Jack” Gardner was the descendent of generations of Boston Brahmins on both sides of his family—and benefitted from those connections immensely: traveling extensively throughout Europe and Asia, befriending numerous painters and artists, serving as a patron to many of them as well as to organizations such as the Boston Symphony, commandeering the Boston social scene for many decades, and so on. It was not a life without significant losses—her only child, a son, died at the age of two; she outlived her beloved husband by more than a quarter-century—but certainly it was a life of great privilege and all that comes with it; as Bruce Springsteen put it, “a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure / Don’t make much for tragedy.”
Indeed they don’t—but the key question to ask of Isabella Stewart Gardner is what she did make of her life, and the answer is on multiple levels very inspiring. In her private life, Gardner followed her passions and loves without (it seems) the slightest worry about what was considered proper or how she might be perceived—some of those loves were stereotypically highbrow (Venice, the opera, priceless art and antiques), but others were anything but (Red Sox baseball and Harvard football, boxing and horse racing, entertainments and adventures wherever and however she could find them). In response to the rumors and gossip that often sprang up around her, Gardner simply noted, “Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth” and continued to live her life. Even more inspiringly, her relationships with the artists and authors she befriended were far from simply financial or one-way streets—John Singer Sargent, the painter to whom she was particularly close (and on whom more tomorrow), considered her a lifelong friend, and his painting of her from two years before her death is one of the most sensitive and powerful portraits ever produced in America.
Gardner’s legacy, as embodied in and exemplified by the Museum, is more inspring still. Literally every aspect of the Museum—known at its 1903 opening as Fenway Court—represents Gardner’s own design and inspiration, from its Fenway location to its use of a transported three-story Venetian palace, the arrangements and specifics of each room to the courtyard’s precise details of colors, flowers, and more. Gardner’s will bequeathed a substantial amount to the upkeep and expansion of the Museum, with the requirement that it maintain her vision and choices. And most importantly, that vision was anything but a Gilded Age stereotype: she hoped that the Museum could serve “for the education and enrichment of the public forever,” and openly and passionately hoped that all Americans could have the chance to visit the Museum and experience its artistic, cultural, historical, and educational environment and effects. Such goals are perhaps not unlike other Gilded Age figures’ Gospel of Wealth, of philanthropic giving coupled to vast fortunes—but in Gardner’s case, she offered not just her wealth but every inch of her identity and perspective, of what she cared about and what she most valued. You can feel that gift in every inch of the Museum.
Next Gardner Museum link tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on the Gardner? Other unique places and spaces you’d highlight?
9/10 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two iconoclastic, influential, and impressive 20th century American authors and voices, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Stephen Jay Gould.

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