Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1840-1924: She Created Art Museum in Her Home

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I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about the art collector and cultural supporter, Isabella Stewart Gardner.

During the late nineteenth century, she traveled around the world to learn about foreign cultures and improve her knowledge of art. Mrs. Gardner was a celebrated arts and community supporter in her hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. She spent her later years turning her home and art collection into a beautiful museum for the public to enjoy.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum does not seem like a museum. It looks like what it is: a large, beautiful home built in the style of fifteenth century Italy. But this home contains over two thousand pieces of art organized from room to room by period and by geography.

The collection includes paintings, sculpture, rare books, jewelry, and pieces of ancient buildings. For example, the Blue Room contains paintings by nineteenth century artists including Edouard Manet and Eugene Delacroix. It also contains finely made furniture and displays of letters from many famous American writers who were friends of Mrs. Gardner during her lifetime.

From this room, you can explore the nearby Chinese Loggia, or go upstairs to see the Italian art hung on the deep red walls of the Raphael Room.

The four levels of rooms center on a beautiful courtyard with a glass ceiling to let light shine in. The art collection is organized in a way that is warm and personal. So you feel like you are a guest in a home instead of a visitor in a huge, impersonal museum.

This museum is one of a kind. It is the only private art collection in the United States that had one person design the building, the collection and the way in which the art is hung. Let us learn more about this interesting woman who devoted her life to art.

Isabella Stewart was born in New York City in eighteen forty. Her father, David Stewart, made a great deal of money in the trade of linen cloth and iron. Isabella went to private schools in New York and in Paris, France, where her family lived for two years. During this time, her parents took her to Italy to explore the country's many cultural treasures.

One of the private art collections Isabella visited in Milan had a deep influence on her. She wrote to one of her friends about her dream of one day owning a house with an art collection like the one she had seen in Italy. Isabella said in the letter that she would fill the house with art and beautiful old furniture called antiques so that other people could enjoy them.

In Paris, Isabella became close friends with one of her classmates, Julia Gardner, whose family was from Boston, Massachusetts. Julia would later introduce Isabella to her brother, Jack. In eighteen sixty, Isabella Stewart married Jack Gardner. The couple moved to Boston.

In eighteen sixty-three, Isabella gave birth to a son, Jackie, who died two years later. To help his wife overcome a severe depression, Jack Gardner planned for them to travel to Europe. The couple traveled through Norway, Russia, Austria and France. This change of environment helped Isabella Gardner greatly. She soon regained the sense of humor and spirit for which she was known.

The couple traveled together often. One trip was to Egypt, Palestine, and Greece. Isabella kept detailed written descriptions of their travels. Her travel writing showed a sense of adventure and love of the art and traditions of other cultures. On another trip, she and her husband visited the art and monuments of Japan, Cambodia, Indonesia, and India.

In eighteen seventy-five, the Gardners adopted the three sons of Jack's brother, who had recently died.

Isabella Stewart Gardner did not behave like most women of her time. She was very independent and not afraid to express her thoughts and opinions. She smoked cigarettes and hosted parties that were famous around town. She learned all she could about subjects that were important to her, such as art and literature. She also developed relationships with interesting people. She became good friends with the American painters John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler and the writer Henry James. She collected the work of the great ancient painters, but also worked hard to support modern artists beginning their careers.

Mrs. Gardner took a great interest in the community activities of Boston. She loved to attend Red Sox baseball games as well as other sports at nearby Harvard College. And, she gave financial support to organizations that supported animal rights and the planting of city gardens. Her independence and spirit caught the attention of the media. Reporters often wrote stories about her, some of which were more true than others. Mrs. Gardner did not seem to mind. She was known to have said: "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth!"

During her many travels, Isabella Gardner visited art galleries and consulted with art experts. She wanted to be fully educated about the art collection she was starting to build. When Isabella's father died in eighteen ninety-one, she used the money he left her to buy more art. A few years later, Isabella and Jack Gardner bought three major paintings by great artists. One was by the Dutch artist Rembrandt, another by the Spanish artist Velazquez, and another was by the Italian artist, Titian.

The couple knew they now had too much art to fit inside their home. So they decided to start planning a museum. Mrs. Gardner decided that she did not like the cold and empty spaces of many museums during her time. She wanted to create a museum that was warm and filled with light. The building design of ancient homes in Venice, Italy, became the influence for their museum.

Mrs. Gardner once said that she decided years ago that the greatest need in her country was art. She said America was a young country developing quickly in other areas. But the country needed more chances for people to see beautiful examples of art.

In eighteen ninety-eight, Jack Gardner died unexpectedly of a stroke. Isabella knew she had no time to lose in building her museum. She bought land, hired a building designer, and supervised every detail of her museum's construction. Around nineteen oh one, Mrs. Gardner moved into the fourth floor of the museum, where she would live for the rest of her life. For over a year, she worked on putting her art collection into place.

Mrs. Gardner opened her museum on January first, nineteen oh three. The museum at this time was called Fenway Court. She invited her friends that night for a special musical performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One person attending that evening described how the perfection of all things in the museum seemed to have an unusual effect on the guests. He said its effect was very extraordinary and wonderful, like a miracle.

The next month, she opened the museum to the public. At first, visits were limited to twenty days out of the year. Visitors paid one dollar to enter.

Isabella Stewart Gardner died in nineteen twenty-four in Boston. In her will, she left the museum a million dollars and a series of requirements about how it should be managed. One requirement is that the permanent collection cannot be changed.

But one major change was beyond the museum's control. In March of nineteen ninety, robbers dressed as police entered the museum and stole thirteen works of art. They stole some of the most valuable works in the collection. They included three paintings by Rembrandt and another by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. The paintings were never recovered. Empty frames hang on the walls were the paintings once were displayed as a reminder of this tragic crime.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is as interesting today as it was one hundred years ago. But it also keeps up with today's community. The museum holds many events so that the public can enjoy musical evenings, educational programs and other activities. Modern artists can take part in the museum's artist-in-residence program. And, the museum invites public school students to view the collection while also providing teachers with art education projects.

The memory and spirit of Isabella Stewart Gardner lives on in the museum she created to share her love of art with the people.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein. You can learn about other famous Americans at our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.