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Desperately Seeking Isabella

The colorful patron of the arts who created Boston’s Gardner Museum seemed intent on immortalizing herself as a personality rather than a human being. How does a biographer get to know someone like that?

I know a few things about Isabella Stewart Gardner, but it’s hard to feel close to her. I’ve been to the house she built, now the Gardner Museum, on the Fenway in Boston; I’ve seen the art she bought and what she left behind when she died. The problem is not simply that her time (1840 to 1924) and her Boston were so different from my own. And it’s not as if I have any difficulty with her sense that art is a lot of what makes life worthwhile. The Gardner Museum, just up the road from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is a lovely counterpart to that institution. An inward-turning monument with palazzo facades surrounding its own interior courtyard, it was created by one person to hold in perpetuity her particular sense of a relationship with art, and her sense of the relations among the artworks themselves. She wanted visiting her collection to evoke pleasure, to affect those who saw it the way she was affected.

Maybe that’s where things begin to go a little off for me, because visiting the Gardner is a mixed experience. The art is displayed in room after beautiful room, most of them opening onto the glass-covered, light-filled courtyard. As visitors, we are invited to relax in this airy space, to take our ease with the art, and yet the organization of that art is directed by private references and associations that often cause unease. A portrait by a follower of Tintoretto is high over a doorway; a row of smaller paintings are hung one over the other, seemingly with no regard for how difficult they are to see, or how the light strikes them (or doesn’t); a table is crowded with small aesthetic objects as if they were shells or beach glass, souvenirs of long-ago outings.

Moreover, none of this can be rethought, rehung, rearranged, because her will specifies that if it is, the entire collection must be auctioned off. It’s as if Isabella’s relationship with the art is the only one allowed. Eager to participate in the pleasures of her legacy, you encounter imperiousness and eccentricity. Her realm is one of luxury and willfulness, aesthetics inextricable from personality.

Faced with the difficulty of penetrating a past world using the eyes of the present, historians and biographers typically follow the clues left behind. In Mrs. Gardner’s case, there’s that huge footprint on the Fenway, and there are abundant tales of her flamboyance—that she walked a lion from the zoo on a leash, for example, or that when traveling she treated seasickness with champagne and biscuits—but she was careful not to leave us anything truly personal. In her later years she spent the mornings burning documents that might allow the snoops of the future to interpret her life according to their own lights.

To get to know Isabella, and to become intimate with the world to which her collection at Fenway Court was finally presented, I have had to make voices other than hers speak to me. I’ve lingered with other women of her time and class, with some of the men who created Boston’s great cultural institutions after the Civil War, with the beautifully educated and talented young men to whom she was patron and friend. It was only when I came to a friendship of her later years, though—with the gifted and sophisticated Japanese aesthete-philosopher Okakura Kakuzo—that I began to draw closer.

Okakura came to Boston in 1904 to curate the extensive collection of Asian art assembled at the Museum of Fine Arts by some of Isabella’s adventurous friends —men who’d gone to Japan as part of the thrilling East–West exchange made possible after Commodore Perry forced open the Japanese ports in 1853. Okakura was the cosmopolitan Easterner who extended his hand to the West. His introduction to the Japanese tea ceremony, The Book of Tea, tries to make an aesthetic of simplicity, impermanence, and contemplation compatible with Western ideas of art appreciation and collecting.

The philosophy of tea as Okakura describes it is “a worship of the Imperfect”; it’s “a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.” He invites his readers to “linger in the beautiful foolishness of things,” to beatify the mundane. All our gestures, public or private, demonstrate impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness. Thus, “the art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.”

The Book of Tea develops the Taoist and Zen idea that “true beauty [can] only be discovered by one who mentally complete[s] the incomplete,” and thus gives us a way to sneak up on Isabella as we stand in the rooms of her museum. “Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their color,” Okakura writes; “their pigments are our emotions, their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.” Sharing with Isabella Okakura’s gentle and generous approach to aesthetic enjoyment, I become willing to move closer to her, and to the way she offers me herself and her art. Imagining that her pleasure in art, like mine, might be in the way its secrets become ours as we give it our attention, I am trying to complete the absent Isabella, to draw near so the years between us don’t seem as awkward.

And yet, I still resist—just as her refusal to allow any changes in her arrangements feels like resistance to her friend’s philosophy of impermanence. I still feel like a grumpy tourist in the biographical and historical maze. I must begin again the search for closeness, for clues to the private and missing Isabella Stewart Gardner.

A Conversation About Sex
I come once more into the Titian Room. Here is Titian’s great painting called The Rape of Europa. When Isabella acquired it in 1896, she wrote of two kinds of pleasure in it—her personal aesthetic joy (“an orgy of drinking myself drunk with Europa”) and another joy more complicated (“she [Europa] has adorers fairly on their old knees—men, of course”). In his illustrated Companion Guide to the museum, Hilliard T. Goldfarb says that depending on the viewer’s state of mind, the painting can be “either a ribald or a sublime affirmation of the miracle of love.”

One of Mrs. Gardner’s biographers, Louise Hall Tharp, points out the putto in the painting looking up Europa’s skimpy dress and also the disassembled silk ball gown of Isabella’s that hangs beneath it. Tharp includes as well a photograph of Isabella wearing the still-assembled dress at a rather staid-looking party. Did Isabella mean the exhibited dress to suggest a livelier party—the gown’s former inhabitant decamped on the back of a lustful bull? Or at least that the expensive gown was also a masterpiece of seduction?

I heard one of the guards at the doorway into the Titian Room describing Isabella as having “that big mind—she knew exactly what she wanted to do.” A retired art educator, he went on to explain that Titian’s subject was considered very erotic in Isabella’s time: the way the painter catches the moment of abduction as if it had been an irresistible shot by a morally lax photojournalist. Then he points out on a nearby stand the small painting called Christ Carrying the Cross, the work of an artist in the circle of Giovanni Bellini. Isabella used that, he says, to calm herself down after spending time with the so stirring Titian. Is this the guard’s own way of mentally completing the incomplete, in Okakura’s terms? Or does the very quirkiness of the whole display preclude completion? Is the Titian Room installation just a tease, or is there also a tea ceremony, a celebration of impermanence? How can I understand the conversation going on here, and how may I be part of it?

Perhaps I should stop beating about the bush. What I’m really asking is, Could Isabella be carrying on a conversation about sex in this room, and in her museum—a conversation about women and sex and power? I am looking at the past with the faraway eyes of my own time and concerns. I want my road to Isabella to link up with my world, in which sex and gender are topics freely discussed, even by ladies who expect to be respected.

To that end, then, I went to examine a bit of erotica from long ago I’d heard was temporarily on display in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. There, in a small upstairs room within the Asian galleries, was an album of eighteenth-century Chinese erotic art that, as the curator said, answers the question, What did women in polygamous households do all day? Naturally I didn’t want to miss this. It turned out to be a series of 12 charming and delicate paintings in which refined and smiling ladies play board games, play with birds and animals, and play with each other’s intimate parts in domestic surroundings as soothingly, as delightfully well-appointed as any to be found in Boston—only Chinese, of course.

Portraits of a Lady
The conversation surrounding this lovely curiosity, as the MFA curators would have me understand, is definitely about sex. On the surrounding walls are other Asian paintings whose sexual content, while not immediately apparent, is developed in the signage. In particular, it explains that a painting by an unknown artist called Portrait of a Lady is drawing on Taoist imagery to imply the beneficial effects of sexual activity. It shows a solid and flourishing-looking old woman in a garden, surrounded by objects indicating her scholarship and knowledge of art, and her attunement to the realm of Earth and the Heavens above. These include cranes, deer, and flowers, bonsai plants, writing equipment, a landscape painting that seems like a window into a more contemplative world, and a couple of serving women preparing tea. The deer and the cranes, it seems, are the iconographic tip-off that she owes this serene age to her Taoism, a religion more friendly to sex, apparently, than the one more familiar in the city outside the museum’s walls.

The painting’s proximity to the Chinese album was not a curatorial arrangement set in perpetuity, as I later discovered, but in my own mind this portrait of a lady surrounded by the symbols of her power remained resonant, sending me back to the Gardner Museum yet again.

The very title of the Taoist work evokes the famous portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent. There are actually two portraits of Isabella by Sargent in the Gardner Museum, the second and smaller one done less than two years before her death, and both show her at the center of at least her own life, if not all of Earth and Heaven. In both, her figure is very much the whole story, with no cranes or peonies or other coded philosophical commentary.

In the one known as Portrait of a Lady, painted in 1888 when she was a vibrant 48, she stands directly facing the viewer, wearing a long black dress with short sleeves and a heart-shaped neckline, the point of the heart just low enough to show a bit of cleavage. Behind her is a series of golden circular patterns, like a mandala or the background of a thirteenth-century religious painting. The way the design works, she appears to have both a crown on her head and a halo around it. (So maybe there is some coded iconography, but it seems to have more to do with flattery than information.) It’s different from other portraits of Sargent’s rich clients, which generally emphasize flowing hair and silks, turning even children’s mysterious faces into a performance of wealth and ease. In this one, the performance assumes the viewer’s direct engagement: the lady looks straight out from above the heart shape, and the black dress is merely background for her bare arms and the doubled rope of pearls circling the waist of her hourglass figure.

The theatricality of this image is matched in the later portrait, a small watercolor in which the sitter is swathed in white fabric from head to foot, resting on a divan, a pillow supporting her back. This one is called Mrs. Gardner in White and has a slightly exotic feel to it. She is covered except for her face, but it’s as if the face is only momentarily exposed, as if she were an Arab woman or a figure from antiquity. There’s no hint that by this time she had been partially disabled by a stroke, and was in fact propped on the pillow.

On the other hand, the portrait does seem to show a face being absorbed by surroundings that are themselves thinning out. Where in the earlier portrait her flesh came forward from deep gold-red and vivid black, here the red is a few streaks on the pillows, the gold a muted yellow barely sketched on the slipcover. The shadows on her robes shade into deeper shadow behind her. The face is ageless, but it’s clearly a function of the painter’s tact, not the lady’s religious practices. When this one was painted, in 1922, she was in her eighties, and in any case, for Sargent, a lady’s face was not the place to demonstrate his mastery of realist technique.

Perhaps more to the point, unlike the Taoist lady in the garden of her achievements, Isabella is still alone, still the whole story. Only when considered side by side might these two portraits invite meditation on the impermanence of personality—on the necessity, as Okakura tells us, of constant readjustment to our surroundings, and to ourselves. But these paintings are not side by side, nor is there any signage to indicate how they fit with the objects that surround them. She still does not speak to us of herself.

To Touch History
In the case of the earlier portrait of Isabella, it’s not hard to discover that in its time it created a stir for its sexual content. Possibly the bit of cleavage was not balanced by enough attention to the costliness of the dress, or maybe the arms frame the slender and flexible waist too boldly. The gossip that wafts across the century includes a joke about Sargent having “painted her all the way down to Crawford’s Notch,” a sample of Boston men’s club wit that puns on a well-known resort in the White Mountains and speculation about her particular friendship with one of the young men in her circle of artistic protégés, the very popular (though now forgotten) novelist Francis Marion Crawford. For this fortunate lady, the possible reference to sexual activity was not folded into religious iconography. Like the ones in the Chinese album, this painting was kept at home for private enjoyment, and even today it doesn’t greet the visitor anywhere near the entrance to the Gardner Museum. To see it you have to climb all the way up to the third floor, where it’s displayed in a corner of the criminally badly lit Gothic Room.

The later portrait is about as far away from this as the museum allows, in a room near the front door. As this room can be easily closed off when the museum is short of guards, often it’s not even open, so it retains an impression of being a sort of inner sanctum, entered through double doors. In spite of its four tall windows, the room seems small and intimate, and in spite of its sparse furnishings, rather crowded. When Sargent had finished his portrait of her in white, Isabella propped it here on a bookcase, where she could see it from her seat in front of the fire. There it remains, one among many other objects. Standing before it you have to tilt your neck up, and stand on one side to avoid the reflection from the glass covering it.

As I am studying the aged Isabella sitting against her pillows and staring into the future that will not be hers (despite her efforts here in her museum), the guard comes over to intensify my experience. “That’s Mrs. Gardner,” he tells me in a deep Russian accent, “and she was painted right here in this room.” In fact, he goes on, she was sitting right there, on that couch. He points to a low settee with a caned seat under an opposite window. It is clearly not the comfy, pillow-strewn couch in the painting. My doubtful noises spur him to discover internal documentation—the bit of frame behind her, which he says is the window, but now looks to me like part of another painting (an observation I keep to myself). Warming to his theme, he makes a perpendicular gesture toward the window behind the settee. “So,” he informs me in Slavic basso, “you have the opportunity to touch history.”

That is, of course, what I am trying to do, and I put up no further resistance to his misinformation. I attend to the questions that concern me most. What came between the black-velvet-and-pearls and the white drapery? How does this small crowded room help me mentally to complete the portrait on the bookcase? My brief hermeneutic struggle with the Russian guard returns me to the biographical and historical junk piled off-canvas—to the evidence she systematically destroyed in the fireplace across the room. Did she indeed learn from Okakura to care less about the razzle-dazzle of acquisition, a tenderness toward imperfection, a patient appreciation of the mundane? I am trying to see her secrets—what is not on display. I want to know what she burned, to go beyond the letters and journal entries about her travels—the colorful silks and curious customs of the East, the heat and rain and the amazing allee of cryptomeria trees that led her to the shrines of Nikko. I want more than her pleasure in Hong Kong harbor at sunset, naked wrestlers, and the eating of her first peacock; more than a charming description of the Chinese shopkeepers of Saigon who twang their guitars all night long “or do some banging, clanging, firecrackery thing to frighten away the evil spirits.”

On that journey of Isabella’s to the East, undertaken in 1882, soon after Frank Crawford abruptly abandoned her, she was entertained by colonial administrators and received in her diamonds by the local royalty. The annotations in her album of souvenir photographs are written in a firm and generous hand: “We left Nara at 1 p.m.” It’s all very entertaining, but in fact I am not touching history. I have no idea what Isabella really made of the East. The trip moved westward to India, the Middle East, and eventually came to rest in Venice. About the state of Isabella’s heart we have no information at all. She did not see Frank Crawford again for 10 years.

I am looking for the story that can explain to me better her powers, her palazzo, and her talent for her own life. In my story, then, I am giving her what Jane Austen calls elasticity of mind: “that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which [carries one] out of [oneself].” This could be what made Isabella so appealing to so many. Even after painful disappointment, she was open to the life around her. That, too, is necessary for love. Perhaps it is what the Taoists mean by attunement to the realm of Earth and Heaven above, what Okakura means by constant readjustment to our surroundings. I may just be making this up because I am glad to remember Austen’s phrase and because after all this writing about Isabella, I am wanting to like her, to bring her closer to me. My question about the sexual conversation has not been answered, but now it’s my pleasure to complete her, to let the details emerge. I am willing to linger here, in her beautiful foolishness.

Excerpted from The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner by Patricia Vigderman, published by Sarabande Books, Inc. © 2007 by Patricia Vigderman. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books and the author. Please visit www.sarabandebooks.org for more information.

PATRICIA VIGDERMAN, G72, G99, teaches in the English Department at Kenyon College. Her recent work has appeared in Harvard Review, Georgia Review, Raritan, Kenyon Review, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. She is currently writing about the imaginary life of the Parthenon. The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, from which our article was adapted, is her first book.

  © 2007 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 200 Boston Ave., Suite 4600, Medford, MA 02155