Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardnerby Douglass Shand-Tucci
Douglas Shand-Tucci is a historian of American art and architecture and New England studies. His most recent book, Boston Bohemia, 1881-1900, was one of five 1996 Winship/PEN New England Award finalists for best book of the year by a New England author. He lives in Boston's Back Bay at the Hotel Vendome, a place much frequented by both Isabella Stewart Gardner and John Singer Sargent.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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The society [Henry] James knew was a performance . . . in which the performerswore masks and costumes. . . . the audience was expected to imagine theactual bodies beneath the costumes and the secret acts of love and violencethat occurred offstage. The performance was a dance of the powerful, wholoved, abused, and sometimes freed their beloved victims, and of the victimsthemselves who, all too rarely, succeeded in achieving freedom and power.
Sheldon M. Novick
Comedy and tragedy: Isabella Gardner and John Sargent, the fourteenth ofSeptember, 1922. It was a wintry business, though it was still autumnhislast portrait of her. What was it Oscar Wilde had said? "The soul isborn old, but grows young. That is the comedy of life. The body is bornyoung and grows old. That is life's tragedy."
This last portrait was a very different portrait than Sargent's first, paintednearly thirty-five years previously. Then she had been a vigorous womanof forty-seven, in high middle age: with its striking disclosure of herstrength of characterthat steady, appraising gazeand hardly less soof her bohemian natureSargent had looped great ropes of pearls aroundher waist!that portrait had in many ways in 1888 heralded her growingrepute as a cultural maverick. By 1922 there was no doubt about it. Northat she had become a formidable leader in her field; muse, mentor, patron,collector, connoisseur, and designer. And a scandal toofor so many peopleeverywhere whom she had alternately vexed or fascinated. In 1886 it hadbeen she, through Henry James, who had searched out Sargent.Thirty-sixyears later it was Sargent who sought her out.
She was eighty-two now, paralyzed so that she could no longer walk; forthis last portrait they had had to prop her up like a dummy on a sofa, bracedby pillows. Yet after her death, her friend Corina Smith, studying Sargent'sbrilliant farewell of his friend and patron, saw in Isabella Gardner's eyesthe most improbable thingelation. The body is born young but grows old.The soul is born old, but grows young. Tragedy and comedy. It was Mary Berensonwho had written Gardner: "Nothing, has ever been wasted on you?"Yes, elation. As soon as she could (she had to wait for the return of hersecretary; all her letters had to be dictated now), Isabella Gardner confidedhappily to Bernard Berenson that her last portrait, no less than had thefirst, was keeping "everyone's tongue busy wagging," adding inher ironic way: "even I think it is exquisite." Dying wouldn'tbe wasted on her either. How many people die exquisitely? But there wouldalways be Sargent's portrait to prove it.
She was burning her letters now too. There were many fireplaces in her apartmenthigh above perhaps the most unusual art museum in the worldthe only institutionanywhere, after all, both envisaged and designed by and then named aftera womanwhere the woman herself was seeing to her legacy as surely as inanother way was Sargent; keeping this, destroying that, she was editingher life as passionately and as determinedly as once she had formed thefirst and for years the greatest of all the private art collections of theNew World, the glories of which still surrounded her. "Dearest Isabella,"Bernard Berenson wrote, "we are all playing a losing game; you playit better than anyone else in the world." Was that why she triumphedin the end? Did that explain the elation? She had been called the most optimisticof women; her museum, the pride of her life, the most joyful of creations.Yet she had had to hold on to that optimism, that joy, pretty tightly inher life. The fastest of runners as a girl, as an adult Isabella Gardner'scarriages were also always driven, her friend and amanuensis Morris Carterrecalled, "at top speed." It was her great contemporary, TheodoreRoosevelt, who wrote: "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whosepace is fast enough."
Venicethere, certainly, were the finest memories of her youth. "Risinglike water-columns from the sea; Of joy the sojourn, and of wealth the mart":so Byron hymned that legendary Italian city in its elegiac nineteenth-centurytwilight. And so in his way did Wagner, who, as it happens, died there:the drama of his funeral flotilla making its way up that age-old stage set,the Grand Canal, evokes in my mind's ear the long passionate rapture oflonging and finding, or, it may be, betrayal, that one hears in Tristan;themes that resonate in all our lives. The opera itself was well known toIsabella Gardner; she loved Wagner's music. And in her old age she probablyhad learned that Tristan was the work the composer began writing in thevery year that at the age of seventeen, in 1857, Isabella first saw Venice.All the story of her life suggests she lost her heart there. She once querieda friend, "Does your heart ache with mine for Venice?"
She was Isabella Stewart then, Belle to family and friends, born April 14,1840, not quite but almost the brash young "American girl" HenryJames would shortly explicate so well; in Italy with her parents, Davidand Adelia Stewart of New York.11 Educated at the sort of front-parlor schoolthen so popular among the well-to-do of Manhattan, but also, briefly, ata Roman Catholic convent school (though the Stewarts were earnestly lowchurch Episcopalians, parishioners of New York's fashionable Grace Church),Isabella had been brought up under a genteel though somewhat restrictedregimeher mother had the reputation of being strict enoughin the sortof overstuffed mid-Victorian town house whose decor in her maturity Isabelladoubtless preferred to forget.
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