Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner
Founder of the Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), the founder of the Gardner Museum, amassed what was considered for many years the greatest private collection in America. She was a friend, patron, and muse to many of the major figures of her day, including Henry James, who allegedly used her as a model for Isabel Archer, the protagonist of Portrait of a Lady; the psychologist William James; and Bernard Berenson, whom she almost entirely supported. She played a role in the discovery of the painter John Singer Sargent and gave him a studio in her museum, which he used for twenty years. She was an illustrious and somewhat notorious figure in the press, the subject of numerous scandals and endless fascination.

Gardner bequeathed the museum -- her collection and the replica of an Italian Palazzo which houses the work -- to the city of Boston. The museum is a subject of intense debate within the academic community, due to her ironclad will, which stated that no one could add anything to nor remove anything from the collection, nor move anything from her rather unusual placement, which was often based on form, color, and juxtaposition instead of region and chronology.  Today, the museum remains exactly as Mrs. Gardner left it except for the loss of the 13 works due to the theft.