A lady in a black dress, which slightly shows her cleavage, is standing, putting her hands together in a portrait created by U.S. artist John Singer Sargent. The name of this impressive figure in the drawing is Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the most legendary art collectors in Boston during the late 19th century. It makes us curious why her eyes look sad, although she, as a woman, made it in society while gaining wealth, fame, and achievements. What is her story?
Born in the United States, Sargent spent most of his life in Europe, including Paris and London. He earned global fame as a portrait artist and was a well-mannered, French-speaking man skilled in winning the hearts of wealthy patrons.
On his first visit to Boston, Sargent drew Gardner’s portrait. He highlighted a 48-year-old lady’s deep eyes, sad facial look, and voluptuous body shape. She looks sensual but depressed presumably because the artist projected the model’s life onto the canvas. Born to a wealthy family in New York, Gardner, at age 20, married a businessman named Jack Gardner and settled in Boston. However, a happy married life only lasted briefly. Grieving the loss of her children, she was left with depression.
Having a stillbirth of her first baby after five months of marriage, she lost a less-than-two-year-old son that she had three years later. Several months after her son’s loss, she suffered a miscarriage when her sister-in-law, one of her friends, died. Submerged in the sorrow of loss, she packed and traveled around Europe and Russia with her husband as recommended by her doctor. The journey opened her eyes to art, leading her to buy works of Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and other artists. Indeed, art was the salvation of her life. Breaking free from depression, many holes in her life were filled in by the enriching spirits of art.
There is always a trade-off. Gardner lost her children but seized fame and art in her hands. Even today, a house filled with all the art collection to which she devoted her life, the first private-owned art museum in the United States, is still one of the most visited places among Bostonians.