Greatest Art Collectors Series:
Isabella Stewart Gardner

Biography of Boston Art Collector of Renaissance Paintings.

Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner
(1888) By John Singer Sargent. (detail)

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924)

A wealthy American socialite from a prominent Boston family, Isabella Stewart Gardner was also a philanthropist and patron of fine art. Indeed she was one of the leading art collectors in America specializing in the Italian Renaissance. Her collection, now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at Fenway Court, Boston, has been described as probably the finest compact art collection in the world. Specializing in Italian Renaissance art, the collection includes Rape of Europa (1559-62) by Titian, itself sometimes referred to as the greatest painting in America. It also features a number of outstanding 17th century Dutch Baroque paintings (including Vermeer's The Concert), as well as a diverse range of decorative art including textiles, furniture, ceramics, glassware, illuminated manuscripts and books.

Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922)
Greatest collector of Impressionism.
Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898)
Greatest collector of Russian art.
Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936)
Patron of Matisse, Picasso.
Solomon R Guggenheim (1861-1949)
US art collector, museum-founder.
Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939)
First modern dealer in Paris.
Ivan Morozov (1871-1921)
Russian collector of Cezanne, Bonnard.
Dr Albert C Barnes (1872-1951)
America's greatest art collector.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942)
Founder of the Whitney Museum.
Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947)
Collector, Impressionist paintings.

Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler (1884-1979)
Dealer of Picasso & Cubism.
Duncan Phillips (1886-1966)
Founder of Phillips Collection.
Paul Guillaume (1891-1934)
Dealer of Ecole de Paris paintings.
J Paul Getty (1892-1976)
Oil tycoon, art/antiquities collector.
Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)
Collected modern abstract art.
Leo Castelli (1907-99)
Leading New York art dealer.
Charles Saatchi (b.1943)
Collects contemporary art.


Born Isabella Stewart, daughter of David and Adelia Stewart, in New York City, she married John Lowell "Jack" Gardner, son of John L and Catherine E Gardner of Boston, Massachusetts in April 1860, and afterwards settled in Boston. Appearing regularly in the society pages, Isabella Stewart Gardner proved to be regular fodder for the tabloid newspapers, with her reputation for unconventional behavior. Her appearance in 1912 at a formal Boston Symphony concert wearing a white headband with the words "Oh, you Red Sox" remains one of the most talked about scandals of the time.

For details of the greatest galleries
and arts venues, see:
Best Art Museums.

Many of the paintings collected
by Isabella Stewart Gardner are
available online as Poster Art.

For a guide to the different,
categories/meanings of visual
arts, see: Definition of Art.
For a list of different categories,
see: Types of Art.

Art Collection

She and her husband Jack had one son, John Lowell, in 1863, who died tragically before the age of two. After his death, the couple spent more time travelling. It was during these travels in Europe and the Middle East that she began collecting artworks, but it wasn't until the early 1890s that she began taking it seriously. Thereafter, she and her husband built up a world-class collection which embraced tapestry art, silver, ceramics, photographs, glassware and illuminated manuscripts, as well as drawings, prints, painting and sculpture.

Sometimes competing with the collector Edward Perry Warren, who later donated a series of works to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella was assisted in over 70 of her purchases by the Lithuanian-born art historian and Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), who helped her in the assembly of an outstanding collection of works from the High Renaissance period, including masterpieces by Botticelli (1445-1510), Raphael (1483-1520) and Titian (1487-1576).



It is also rich in works by Dutch Realist artists, including Rembrandt (1606-69) and Vermeer (1632-75), as well as 19th century works by the American society portraitist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) - whose full-length portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888) is in the collection, as is his sublime flamenco picture El Jaleo (1882) - along with pictures by the great tonal painter Whistler (1834-1903), and the modern Swedish master Anders Zorn (1860-1920). Isabella Stewart Gardner was also the first American art collector to buy a painting by Matisse.

Art Museum

Following the death of her husband in 1898, Gardner started work on a building (Fenway Court) to house the collection, using the architect Willard T. Sears. Designed as a palatial home for herself, as well as a museum, it was built to resemble a mansion from the era of Venetian Renaissance architecture (c.1550). She herself lived on the fourth floor, and opened the museum to the public two days a year. On her death at the age of 84, she bequeathed her art museum and collection to the city of Boston, provided that it was maintained exactly as it had been during her life.

Art Theft

In 1990, in what experts have called the largest art heist in history, thieves dressed as Boston policemen got away with 13 works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, including paintings and drawings by Vermeer, Degas, and Rembrandt. To date, the works have not been recovered.

• For more about the finest artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about fine arts buyers and their collections, see: Homepage.

Modern Artists
© All rights reserved.