Chasing Beauty: A Book Review by Bob Morris

Chasing Beauty: The Life of Isabella Stewart Gardner
Natalie Dykstra
Mariner Books/An Imprint of HarperCollins ((March 2024)

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Pablo Picasso

According to her official biography, “Mrs. Jack Gardner is one of the seven wonders of Boston. There is nobody like her in any city in this country. She is a millionaire Bohemienne. She is the leader of the smart set, but she often leads where none dare follow… She imitates nobody; everything she does is novel and original.” She was born in New York City on April 14, 1840 into a well-to-do family. Her father, David Stewart, made his fortune importing Irish linen and later through investments. The family lived on University Place in the West Village. Isabella was privately educated in New York and “finished” abroad. A Paris schoolmate, Julia Gardner, introduced Isabella to her brother, John “Jack” Lowell Gardner Jr. In 1860, a few days before her 20th birthday, Isabella Stewart married Jack Gardner in Grace Church in New York City. They moved to his hometown of Boston and settled into a house in the fashionable Back Bay at 152 Beacon Street, a wedding gift from her father.”

Isabella Stewart Gardner suffered a stroke in 1919, but continued to receive guests in her museum for the next five years. She died in 1924, leaving a museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” She provided an endowment to operate the museum, stipulating in her will that nothing in the galleries should be changed, and no items be acquired or sold from the collection.

Several excellent biographies have already been written about her and I have read three of the best (written, in alpha order, by Marian Jansen, Nathaniel Silver and Diane Seave Gredenwald, and Louise Hall Tharp). None is more informative and better written than Chasing Beauty.

In her review of Natalie Dykstra’s exquisite biography for The New York Times, Megan O’Grady observes: “Bright, impetuous and obsessed with beautiful things, Isabella Stewart Gardner led a life out of a Gilded Age novel. Born into a wealthy New York family, she married into an even wealthier Boston one when she wed John Lowell Gardner in 1860, only to be ostracized by her adopted city’s more conservative denizens, who found her self-assurance and penchant for “’jollification’ a bit much.  Isabella Stewart Gardner

“Belle, as she was known, thought nothing of bringing home lion cubs from the zoo to show off at teatime, or of taking a younger lover. The necklines of her couture dresses were low; her trademark rope of pearls — a gift from her devoted (and long-suffering) husband — hung nearly to her knees. Society columnists struck a tone of derisive admiration: One 1894 profile marveled at Gardner’s magnetism, given that her face was ‘almost destitute of those lines of beauty’ appreciated at the time.

“Gardner cast a mold for ultrawealthy bohemianism, leaving behind the kind of legacy few Bostonians could match in Fenway Court (now known as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), the palazzo-inspired Gesamtkunstwerk she designed largely herself. She filled it with Old Masters, rare manuscripts and objets d’art. Inviting Boston’s elite to the 1903 opening reception, she greeted them like subjects, serving champagne and doughnuts to the strains of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”

In or near the central business district of most major  cities, there is a farmer’s market at which — at least unil COVID — several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit I now offer brief excerpts from Chasing Beauty that are representative of Dykstra’s style:

o “Isabella was a late bloomer, a woman who saw what was expected of her as a Boston matron and decided to do something else. She made sense of her long life through far-reaching travel, avid collecting, and an all-consuming pursuit of beauty, which came to form the through line of her story. The record she left to the world is her [begin italics] Wunderkammer [end italics], her world of things.” (Page 5)

o “Though Belle spooke French more fluently than Italian and knew Paris better, the culturally dominant French capital was not her city.  Its uppercrust society admitted very few outsiders. Venetian society, with its hodgepodge of writers and artists, expat Americans and those hard on their luck, was cosmopolitan, less constrained, and small enough for her to join. With the sweet promise of freedom, her sharp elbows, much needed in Boston, could unbend.” (131)

o Bernhard Berenson’s “return to Isabella’s life was propitious on several fronts — he was at the start of a career as leading connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art at just the right moment when she had the financial resources to collect in a big way. She already had a highlyv educated eye and enormous nerve. She’d bought the first Vermeer for a Boston collection. She’d been counted among the important American Collectors at the World Columbian Exposition [1893]. Now was the time to find [‘chase’] more art, and Berenson could help her.

“By summer 1894, she was sending him black-and-white photographs of  paintings she needed attribution for — who painted this, and when? By August, he responded with this question: ‘How much do you want a Botticelli?'” (213)

o Henry James “admired his old friend, but he continued to stand at a distance from her intensity and demands. Something — maybe the scale of her ambition — made him sound twitchy in his letters to her, and he kept using oxymorons when writing about her to mutual friends. She was an ‘extraordinary little woman’ in one letter and ‘a great little personage’ in another, as if he had cut her down to size.” (303)

o “In later years, people wondered why she did not put down in writing the reasons behind what she did in the museum — the sequence of rooms and the import of her installations. Maybe she did not want to put in writing what she wanted us to experience in the museum because to do so would lock down its meaning. We would have looked to her, and not to ourselves, as the authority. She wanted us to make meaning of what we see and hear and feel in in the galleries’ embrace, to chase beauty for ourselves. There is always more to find and more to say. Just as she wished.” (392).

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the abundance of invaluable information and insights that Natalie Dykstra provides in Chasing Beauty. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of her definitive achievement. Bravo!

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