Famous Females: Isabella Stewart Gardner

A series on important women in the arts

In a field that has long been dominated by men, there is a significant history of women who have collected art, influenced the art market, and were instrumental in shaping what we view in museums and learn about in art history books.

John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888, oil on canvas (Wikipedia Commons)

John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888, oil on canvas (Wikipedia Commons)

Collecting art has often required significant economic power. Indeed, many of these women benefitted from exceptional generational wealth. However, a few, like Dorothy Vogel, were able to build their collection without an inheritance or family money. While some collected Old Masters, others supported avant-garde artists of their time, who would later become household names in the art historical canon.

In this series, we'll take a brief look at some of the women who helped shape art history through collecting, commissioning, and supporting artists. Up first is Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924)

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collecting habits began with rare books and manuscripts, before turning to art during her extensive travels to Europe. She often spent time at the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice—a gathering place of American and English artists. There, she met art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, who became her chief art advisor. While Gardner collected Old Masters and Italian Renaissance paintings, including Vermeer, Rembrandt, Titian, and Raphael, she also collected contemporary artists of her time, like John Singer Sargent. She was deeply involved in the development of a museum to house her collection, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which opened in 1903.

Recommended reading: The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser

Cassandra Fiorenza