Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Circe of the River Charles

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Bernard Berenson, her friend and agent, called her "the Circe of the River Charles." The man whom she loved most in life, F. Marion Crawford, captured something of her appeal in the heroine of his novel To Leeward, which is based on her life: "What if her features were not quite classic in proportion?? Her figure was strong and lithe?there was strength and ease about her carriage?what a splendid thing she was with the evening sun on her hair."

    So the portrait had been difficult. Mrs. Gardner was dissatisfied with Sargent's first eight tries. But the ninth version worked. Mrs. John L. Gardner (Sargent called it Woman-an Enigma) was exhibited later that year in Sargent's first one-man show anywhere, at Boston's St. Botolph Club. It was a sensation. It still is. Mr. John L. Gardner, her husband, detested it. At his request, the painting was not shown again in his lifetime.

    Whistler had already painted her portrait in pastel. There would be others, particularly Anders Zorn's splendid nocturnal portrait of Mrs. Gardner in yellow. She is posed in a Venetian doorway, her lovely arms outstretched, dramatically lit by artificial light inside and fireworks beyond. Zorn captured her warmth, energy and sensuality; but only Sargent captured her entire. John Singer Sargent had been born in Florence of American parents in 1856 and did not see the United States until he was 21. His Parisian training had been rigidly academic. Robert Hughes called his teacher's method "a monomaniac attention to direct tonal painting, almost the opposite of color-based impressionism. 'Velazquez, Velazquez, Velazquez,' he intoned, 'ceaselessly study Velazquez.'" The expatriate's hard work and sound training made him a virtuoso. In 1884, Madame X, his "highly daring and sensual portrait" of Virginie Gautreau, "all twisting, mannered pose," was a succes de scandale, so much so that even Paris was too hot for him and he moved to London. Yet Sargent's genius lay in the work, which was all that mattered to him.

    Behind the dragoon mustache, the neatly trimmed beard and the elegant tailoring was an oddly narrow temperament. He never married. He never painted a nude. He apparently never had nor was he rumored to have had a sexual relationship. He lacked irony, had no interest in politics and knew nothing about how the other half lived. Yet he understood men and women by instinct if not by intellect. His portraits of men are elegant, dramatic and often insightful. But he liked women, and his portraits of them are wonderfully direct, vivid and sensual. Perhaps he is the last great society portraitist. After the turn of the century, he largely abandoned portraiture for the landscapes, watercolors and murals he believed his natural metier. Most of them are now forgotten, but the portraits are brilliantly alive.

    Mrs. Gardner had always been a trifle flamboyant for Boston. Isabella Stewart was born in New York on April 14, 1840. Her family had inherited Long Island real estate, including a farm comprising much of what is now Jamaica, Queens. Her father had sold much of it and wisely invested the money. She married John Lowell Gardner Jr. of Boston in 1860 at Grace Church, on Broadway at 10th Street, and thereafter lived in Boston. She sought relief from the death of their only child in travel with her husband, making extended tours of Europe, Central Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Her motto was "C'est mon plaisir." As The New York Times wrote, "She did not do anything just to assert a woman's right to do it. She did it just because she wanted to do it." She enjoyed gymnastics; she was a swimmer and equestrian; she loved the Red Sox and relished horse-racing, especially if one of her horses was in the race. She saw Gentleman Jim Corbett box and claimed she had felt the muscles of Sandow, the Strong Man (he probably did not mind at all).

    Then there were the legends, some true, some half-true and some real whoppers. She once arrived at a party in a hired steam locomotive (she had missed an earlier train). It was said she had crawled out of a convent window in Paris to elope with Jack Gardner; had posed in the nude; received guests while perched in the branches of a ceiling-high potted mimosa tree; and had walked a lion on a leash down Beacon St. (actually, she had done it at the zoo). Some said she had done penance for her sins by washing the stairs of the Church of the Advent on her hands and knees, dressed in sackcloth and ashes.

    Stewart had many admirers. Whether those relationships found physical expression is unclear. Her most recent biographer notes she was religious and a woman of her word, and if nothing else the marriage vows are a promise of fidelity. Yet, her relationship with Crawford, an extraordinarily handsome man and a good novelist, was as emotionally intimate as one can imagine. It is not without pleasure that one understands that the rector of her church, who had rebuked her for receiving Crawford in her home, suddenly resigned his office and left the country under a cloud no bigger than a boy's hand. She began collecting paintings and sculpture during the 1870s while traveling with her husband. After inheriting part of her father's estate in 1891, mere interior decoration became a passion. Within five years, the collection had outgrown the Gardners' home. She thought of creating a museum, and Jack Gardner strongly supported her. She formed most of the collection herself. Friends like Sargent and Henry Adams kept her abreast of objects that suited her taste. Her agent, Bernard Berenson, a Lithuanian Jew, the son of a penniless peddler, had graduated from Harvard in 1887. There is much in those bald facts. He would become America's finest critic of Renaissance art. He would also make a fortune from his dealings with Mrs. Jack. Berenson took a 5-percent commission from Mrs. Gardner and other fees from the sellers. Probably, she did not always get the lowest possible price for everything. But they shared a passion for greatness, and even for him she was irresistible: he wrote, "She lives with a reality that makes other lives seem pale, thin and shadowy."

    Jack Gardner died almost instantly from a stroke in 1898. He had loved her; she had liked, honored, and respected him, and she grieved. She threw herself into designing the museum's home, Fenway Court, with the assistance of Willard Sears, an architect and engineer (Sears, on receiving a gold medal for Fenway Court, honorably gave Mrs. Gardner full credit for its design). Construction began in 1899; by December 1901 her Venetian palazzo was finished. She had overseen every aspect of its construction. She fired workers she considered incompetent in a second; she thought nothing of climbing ladders to interrupt the painters, seizing a brush and buckets of paint, and demonstrate the kind of brushwork she wanted.

    Fenway Court opened on New Year's night, 1903. The guests listened to a concert of Bach, Mozart, Chausson and Schumann played by 50 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Then at Mrs. Gardner's command, the great doors rolled back to reveal the lantern-lit interior courtyard, filled with brilliant orange nasturtiums cascading from the second- and third-floor balconies, cyclamen, heather, poinsettia, azalea and jade plants. The soft light, the lush courtyard and the sound of water from the fountain: all was pure magic.

    After its opening, Henry Adams wrote to Mrs. Gardner, "As long as such a work can be done, I will not despair of our age." She lived on the fourth floor and now largely lived for the collection. Yet she still loved the world: she attended Red Sox games and the opera and received guests (T.S. Eliot, then a Harvard graduate student, visited her twice in 1912; three years later he sent her a copy of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"). She also began to destroy her correspondence. She did not destroy her copy of that odd handbook, "The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility." She had emended a chapter heading, "Importance of Taste," by adding the words, "is required in choosing lovers."

    Less than two years beforeMrs. Gardner's death, Sargent painted her for the last time in September 1922. A stroke had taken her ability to walk. They propped her up with pillows on a sofa, "a mummy wrapped in ivory." Yet her gaze remains as it had been 34 years before: direct, vulnerable and coolly appraising. Berenson wrote to her, "We are all playing a losing game; you play it better than anyone else in the world." She died on July 17, 1924, leaving Fenway Court as a place for the "education and enjoyment of the public forever." It was her pleasure.

    The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, both building and collection, are her creation alone. She did not create the objects, but their installation?their selection, arrangement and placement, often among disparate objects each to enhance the other?reflect her genius. Thus, she ignored extrinsic constructs such as nation or chronology. She often left the works unlabeled, so viewers might respond to them for themselves, rather than their creators' fame.

    Under conditions of considerable intimacy, then, one finds Matisse's The Terrace, St. Tropez: the first Matisse to enter an American museum; Rembrandt's self-portrait of 1629; Albrecht Durer's A Man in a Fur Coat; Raphael, Botticelli, Degas, Whistler, Turner, Cellini, Velazquez, Titian, each selected and set as by a jeweler. The tour ends on the third floor, in the Gothic Room, at a certain portrait. This is her final enchantment, the culmination of one's journey through the building that is her mind and taste incarnate: Isabella Stewart Gardner as Sargent first caught her, "absolute, unique, and indomitable."