Isabella Stewart, member of the elite 19th century “Boston Brahmins” has left an impressive art collection in the heart of Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is tucked in an imitation Venetian palazzo near Fenway Park. It hosts the eclectic arts collection of eccentric 19th century society doyenne Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the archetypical “Boston Brahmins”: members of the group of established, old-money families that came to replace the traditional English aristocracy in a burgeoning America.
Today, the museum has expanded: a glass-walled contemporary wing, known as the “Living Room”, replicates the domestic experience of the original Gardner home for a contemporary audience. But it is the old palazzo itself that serves as the main attraction. Gothic window-panes share floor-space with Chinese antiques; a Spanish rendition of the pièta competes for our attention with a haphazardly-hung Giotto and more than a few oil portraits of Brahmin pseudo-nobility.
This is the elegant Boston of ages past: the Boston still preserved today in enclaves like Back Bay, where London-style private gentlemen's clubs are housed in the Victorian brownstones that stare down along Commonwealth Avenue – a Boston so deeply under English and European influence that, as I navigate Gardner's collection of antiquities, I find myself forgetting I am in America at all.
Then, on the top floor, I come face to face with Isabella herself: resplendent in portraiture. John Singer Sargeant painted this particular rendition: Isabella's exposed flesh and sensual, even mischievous, half-smile caused a maelstrom of gossip at the rarified St. Botolph's Club, where it was first publicly shown.
This, I think, is the Isabella Stewart Gardner that famously wore a “Red Sox” headband to a formal symphony function in 1912: scandalizing other patrons and solidifying her reputation as a quintessentially American eccentric – blending the English stoicism of the old Brahmins with the New World flair for novelty and self-invention.
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