The art world is balanced firmly on three legs, not unlike the tripod easels many of us use when painting outdoors, or even in our studios. One leg is, of course, the artist. The second is the art lover. The third is the one most often forgotten, that being the art buyer. The first of these is so obvious as to bear no further elucidation at this point. Being the self-centred egoists we are, we usually do little else but talk about him or her. In the ranks of the art lover I include the millions who visit art galleries and never buy, or troop through museums 'til they're so pooped they plop, and those, like myself, who write about painting. (What one wag once compared to dancing about architecture.) And, though artists seldom forget about them, most people think little about the third leg, the art buyer, specifically, homeowners, museums, and collectors. In recompense for this oversight, I'd like to pay homage to one of the greatest American art collectors of this century--Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Isabella Stewart was born in 1840. In 1860, she married John Lowell Gardner. Her own son having died before his second birthday, she raised three orphaned nephews while her husband raised a family fortune. In 1891, she inherited her father's fortune of $1.6 million accumulated from the sale of the family's large farm near Jamaica, New York, on Long Island (he was also in iron and steel). It was with this windfall she began collecting art, and not just any art, but one of the better self-portraits of Rembrandt (one of sixty he painted during his lifetime). With the untimely death of her husband in 1898, Isabella Gardner quieted her grief by throwing herself into the construction of a museum to house her collection as well as herself. (She lived on the fourth floor.) Today it is a Boston landmark. She called it Fenway Court.
The place is somewhat Moorish in style, featuring a large courtyard which in some climates might have been open to the sky, but being in Boston, it was wisely covered with a (then unusual) glass roof so as to admit natural light to the inner rooms of the mansion/museum. The numbers are impressive--2,500 objects spanning 30 centuries of which about 300 are paintings. Also included are a similar number of sculptures, textiles, ceramic/glass objects, as well as a lesser number of drawings, prints, and art objects of other kinds. Antique furniture makes up an astounding 450 pieces in the collection. In addition to Rembrandt, she acquired Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Degas, as well as portraits of herself by such contemporary art luminaries as Whistler and John Singer Sargent. While some characterised her as eccentric, perhaps independent and unconventional would be more accurate. She was a wise, witty, and determined collector, a very strong, legendary third, tripod leg in the art scheme of things. If only there were more like her today.