At a time when Boston was being run by the descendants of the Puritans, Isabella Stewart Gardner was known for stylish and eccentric tastes. Sporting the latest in Paris and New York fashions, this philanthropic patron of the arts was full of surprises-such as the time she persuaded the Boston Zoo to loan her two lion cubs which she proudly walked up and down Commonwealth Avenue!
Born April 14, 1840 in New York City, Isabella Stewart Gardner was educated in private schools in New York and Paris. A friendship with her schoolmate Julia Gardner led to her marriage of John (“Jack”) Lowell Gardner, Jr., Julia’s older brother. After their wedding they moved to Jack’s hometown of Boston, settling into their residence on Beacon Street in the Back By which had been a wedding gift from Jack’s father. In June 1863, Isabella gave birth to a son, John L Gardner III, known as “Jackie.” Unfortunately, at the age of two, Jackie died of pneumonia sending Isabella into a period of depression and illness.
In 1874, Isabella and Jack became parents to Jack’s three orphaned nephews. Isabella took an intense interest in their rigorous studies and realized her own schooling was lacking. She began reading and attending lectures at Harvard by art historian Charles Elliot Norton. Throughout the 1870’s and late 1880’s, Isabella and Jack frequently traveled through America, Europe and Asia to expand their knowledge of foreign cultures and art throughout the world. It is during this time that she began collecting works of art.
Back in Boston, Isabella was an avid entertainer and a frequent patron of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Known for her dinner parties and salons in her Back Bay home, Isabella hosted the likes of author Henry James, writer Sarah Orne Jewett, philosopher George Santayana and writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, as well as friends and artists like John Singer Sargent. Isabella was a sports enthusiast as well, supporting the Boston Red Sox and the Harvard football and hockey teams.
Upon the death of her husband, Isabella began work on her museum. Completed in 1903, the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum was built in the style of the Renaissance palaces of Venice in the reclaimed swamplands of Boston’s Fenway area. Upon her death in 1924 she willed Fenway Court to the city of Boston as a public museum to be preserved without change. Her will created an endowment of $1 million and strict stipulations as to the maintenance of the museum. In keeping with her philanthropic nature, she also left sizable donations to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children, Animal Rescue League and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
At a time when Puritanical tendencies remained and Boston women were expected to live in a matronly Victorian manner, Isabella Stewart Gardner lived an exuberant life. This, of course, made her the focus of the local press and the rumor mill alike. Keeping with her carefree spirit, Isabella responded to the stories of her escapades with her typical sense of humor saying, “Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth.”