Isabella Stewart Gardner. “Mrs. Jack” startled staid Boston society by erecting a Venetian pleasure dome in the Back Bay and filling it with masterpieces for the public to enjoy…
In Seville, in 1888, Mrs. Gardner bought her first old master-a Zurbaran Madonna which hung in her Beacon Street bedroom until she moved to Fenway Court. Eventually placed in the Spanish Cloister, it served as a kind of altar piece when her body lay awaiting burial in 1924 in a room dominated by one of John Singer Sargent’s undoubted early masterpieces, the swirling El Jaleo, a present to Mrs. Jack from Thomas Jefferson Coolidge. Maintaining that this huge dramatic picture of a dancer in a Spanish cafe had never been properly lit when lent to various exhibitions, Mrs. Gardner tore out the music room at Fenway to build the Spanish cloister as a special setting for El Jaleo. Now, as in her lifetime, it is lit from below to correspond to the illumination within the cafe which Sargent pictured.
Mrs. Gardner called Rembrandt’s self-portrait at the age of twenty-three- stolen in 1990- the cornerstone of the collection, because it was the first picture she bought with public exhibition of her treasures in mind. Also coveted by the National Gallery in London, this Rembrandt cost Mrs. Gardner a mere $15,000, plus a fee to Bernard Berenson, who had described it as one of the most precious pictures in existence. She was less lucky with another Rembrandt that she coveted, The Old Mill, which was eventually acquired by P.A.B. Widener in Philadelphia. Berenson managed to get her the fine Landscape with Obelisk as a kind of consolation prize for missing out on the Rembrandt.
In Paris a drop of her hankerchief outsmarted both the National Gallery of London and the Louvre when she purchased Vermeer’s The Concert for a piffling $6,000, also stolen in the infamous 1990 heist. One of only thirty-six works by this master, The Concert had already mounted in value by ten times by 1900. Today, if it is ever found, the value at market may exceed a hundred million.
Mrs. Gardner’s most celebrated old master is Titian’s The rape of Europa. Finished for Philip II of Spain in 1562, when Titian was pat eighty-five, it was the foremost Titian in America. Rubens, who made the copy of it now in Madrid’s Prado, apparently called it the greatest picture in the world. His pupil, Van Dyck copied the copy; and Mrs. Gardner has that as well.
And Europa is by no means the only Gardner picture with royal associations. The Mantegna Holy Conversation belonged to Charles I of England and later to Philip IV of Spain, who in turn is represented by a Velazquez portrait. Richard Norton, son of Charles Eliot Norton a former director of the American Academy in Rome, got the Mantegna for her, along with a Roman sarcophagus.
At Fenway Court also hangs the Antonio Moro portrait of Mary Tudor, queen of England, which figured in the preliminaries of Mary’s marriage to the future Philip II of Spain. The little Raphael, Pieta, originally formed part of the predella of an altarpiece J.P. Morgan gave the Metropolitan; it once belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden, later to the Duc D’Orleans, and finally to a minor member of the nobility of art, Sir Thomas Lawrence. The Pesellino wedding chests were probably made for the marriage of Piero de Medici, the father of Lorenzo, who ruled Florence in his day.
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