'Inventing Isabella' explores how Isabella Stewart Gardner used art, fashion and photography to shape public image

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'Inventing Isabella' explores how Isabella Stewart Gardner used art, fashion and photography to shape public image
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, 1882–1883. Oil on panel, 32 x 41 cm (12 5/8 x 16 1/8 in.) Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- This Fall, Inventing Isabella at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum explores how the Museum’s founder leveraged art, fashion and photography to shape her identity and cultivate her public persona. The exhibition brings together more than seventy works – paintings, drawings, photographs and fashion culled from the Museum’s collection and archive, in addition to select loans.

Simultaneously, the Museum will present the exhibition, Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History, as well as a newly-commissioned work, Carla Fernández: Tradition Is Not Static. Together, these exhibitions demonstrate how throughout history, fashion choices have enabled women to exert agency and power in communicating their public identity – often in ways that make us rethink ourassumptions. Access to special exhibitions is included in the Museum’s general admission; visitors are encouraged to reserve tickets in advance.

“Inventing Isabella illustrates how Isabella transcended traditional societal norms of her gender and class. She created and cultivated her own identity, just as we do today via social media and other means“ says Peggy Fogelman, Norma Jean Calderwood Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “Along with the contemporary works on view, visitors can see how women throughout history have defied expectations and dared to be different.”

Inventing Isabella (Hostetter Gallery)

Inventing Isabella highlights how Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) deliberately used the visual media of her day to craft her public image. The exhibition unites pictures of herself – formal oil paintings, informal drawings, as well as personal and press photographs – that she chose to preserve, combined with examples of her clothing and jewelry. The exhibition is curated by Diana Seave Greenwald, William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum along with Erica Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA).

Isabella remains an enigmatic figure, and this exhibition explores the stories, scandals, and myths that surrounded her during her lifetime and today.
Inventing Isabella traces how Isabella's tightly-controlled image evolved over time. She purposely left behind few written, first-person accounts and dodged
unauthorized photographs. Instead, she collaborated with trusted artists to style her identity, creating enduring portraits of herself for posterity.

John Singer Sargent

Principle among her artist friends and collaborators was John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925). Attracted to the scandal that his portrait Madame X
created (1883-4) in Paris when it debuted, Isabella sought out to meet the artist.
After seeing the painting of Madame Gautreau in his London studio, Isabella commissioned Sargent to make her own.

Sargent spent two months at the Gardners’ Beacon Street home working on his new patron’s portrait. The sittings were initially contentious with Isabella resisting and interrupting Sargent’s usual portrait-painting process. Wearing a black evening gown, designed by Paris couturier Charles Frederick Worth, Isabella is bedecked in jewels and seemingly crowned with a halo. Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888) is a provocative fusion of the sitter and artist’s mutual interests in iconic imagery and fashion and an expression of their shared drive to challenge convention.

Unveiled at Boston’s St. Botolph Club, this full-length portrait of a formidable female achieved great acclaim, but also caused a stir, inciting gossip and decidedly sexist comments. Isabella’s husband, Jack, seems to have asked his wife to not publicly display the portrait during his lifetime. Isabella installed it in her Museum’s Gothic Room, surrounded by choir books, stained glass, and religious statuary; the gallery did not open to the public until after her death.

“Isabella worked closely with trusted friends, like John Singer Sargent, as well as with photographers and other artists to cultivate a specific, powerful public
persona,” according to Diana Seave Greenwald, William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection. “In this way, she pioneered the type of self-presentation and image management that many of us engage in today in the age of social media.”

For Inventing Isabella, Sargent’s portrait has been relocated to the Museum’s Hostetter Gallery where it will stay for the exhibition’s three-month duration before returning to its usual, permanent home in the Palace. Admirers of Sargent’s work should not miss the opportunity to see the portrait’s inspiration – Madame X – on view in Fashioned by Sargent at the MFA. In the spirit of these stylish trailblazers, we invite the community to share their unique style and identity on our social channels: @gardnermuseum, #daretobedifferent.

Isabella’s close relationship with Sargent continued for more than 43 years. The Museum’s first “artist-in-residence,” they spent months in each other’s company and exchanged hundreds of letters. Isabella purchased Sargent’s painting, Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (1882-1883) in 1919, a study for Madame X (1884), that she so admired. By acquiring this work, Isabella secured an important document of her friend’s career, and piece of her own history.

Shortly after Isabella suffered a debilitating stroke, and while Sargent was working on his mural decorations for the MFA, he painted Mrs. Gardner in White (1922), the final portrait before her death in 1924. A gift to Isabella, this touching watercolor captures the age and unfamiliar vulnerability of its subject. It is inscribed, “To my friend Mrs Gardner / John S Sargent.”

Other Artist Collaborators

Isabella had a deep connection to Sargent, but also had many other artist friends, including a few she trusted to paint her portrait. Isabella Stewart Gardner (1889) by Dennis Miller Bunker (American, 1861–1890) shows Isabella in a red and gold gown worn at a costume ball where patronesses of the event wore Venetian costumes. Six other paintings and drawings by Bunker from Isabella’s collection, created before the artist passed away at age 29, are also on view.

Another artist friend was Anders Zorn (Swedish,1860-1920). In 1894, upon watching fireworks from the balcony of the Palazzo Barbaro on Venice’s Grand Canal, Isabella burst into the room, throwing open the glass doors and encouraging everyone to come see. Wearing a white evening dress and her trademark pearls, Zorn captured her vivacity in Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894). By showing her as a woman of action and enthusiasm, Zorn provides a counterpart to Sargent’s formal, majestic portrayal.

Not all of Isabella’s collaborations with artists, including Zorn, were successful in her eyes. Months before Zorn completed her exuberant portrait in Venice, he created an etching of his friend based on pencil drawings made in Boston. The print depicts Gardner, then fifty-four years old, as a Renaissance queen sitting in a throne-like chair, wearing a fur cape and headpiece evoking a crown. Zorn provided Isabella with dozens of copies to give to friends and family, but almost all of them stayed in her possession. Six of the series, along with several studies, are on view. Isabella’s decision to not share them suggests she was unhappy with the likeness, and not destroying them, perhaps a loyalty to her friend Zorn.


Isabella Stewart Gardner loved fashion and the press frequently remarked on her wardrobe. Most of her gowns were custom-made at the House of Worth in Paris. Her opera coat, made of purple silk velvet with elaborate embroidery of
metallic threads and glass beads, imitates a garment inspired by men’s clothing worn by Marie Antoinette. The garment reflects a nineteenth-century revival of eighteenth-century styles, and combines Isabella’s interests in fashion and historic royalty. Isabella donated it to the Essex Institute, now part of the
Peabody Essex Museum. On loan to the Museum for Inventing Isabella, it is one of the only known extant pieces of her wardrobe.

Newspapers also reported on Isabella’s impressive jewelry collection, especially her long ropes of pearls featured prominently in the Sargent and Zorn portraits. Popular among wealthy society women, Isabella’s were purchased from the
Parisian jeweler Boucheron. She wore them throughout her life, and in 1921, split them into seven strings distributed to friends and family. Two of these strands are on display in the exhibition, along with an original receipt from the jeweler.

Pair of Purple Satin Slippers (about 1900) were a gift from Isabella to her goddaughter, Katharine Foote (daughter of Boston composer Arthur Foote). Created by Maison Chapelle Cordonnier in Paris, these fashionable shoes with bows are made of satin, silk and leather. Foote gave them to the Perkins School for the Blind to wear in school performances. When the shoes were no longer
used, they were donated to the Museum as an example of Isabella’s taste in fashion. “Mme Gardner” is inscribed on the inside heel of the left shoe.


Isabella and photography came of age around the same time. Isabella was photographed often early in life. Many personal snapshots are on view in the
exhibition, including a miniature photo album showing Jack and Isabella around the time of their marriage, and a candid of Isabella nuzzling her only child, Jackie, who died a few months later.

As Isabella aged and her celebrity increased, she did not allow herself to be photographed in such revealing ways. By the late 1800s, when photography was a staple of American visual culture, notable people were photographed again and again, but not Isabella. Veiled or with her back turned in most
photos, Isabella seems to be carefully navigating the boundary between her private identity and public persona.

On occasion, Isabella was photographed when commemorating events with friends. She kept these images in her private archive, a record of the creative and interesting people she cultivated over a lifetime. This section of the exhibition also includes newspaper clippings that she saved, often with images of her that have been manipulated or show someone completely different.

Later in life, Isabella agreed to pose for a few formal photographs. Two were
taken by Adolf de Meyer (1868–1946), Vogue’s first fashion photographer. She allegedly selected one of these portraits to be released as the “official”
photograph upon her death. Despite her best efforts, Isabella could not control her image posthumously, and the press doctored the image.

Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History (Fenway Gallery)

In conjunction with Inventing Isabella, Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History, also curated by Diana Seave Greenwald, will be on view in the historic Palace.
Based in Brooklyn (NY), Jean-Louis (b. 1978), a Haitian American artist and designer and Gardner Museum Artist-in Residence, works in photography, paper textile, design, and sculpture.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Jean-Louis’ high-styled period dress – Garden Dress II (2017 ) – resembling garments worn by European female nobility from the 1600s to 1800s. The dress is accompanied by six of Jean-Louis’
photographs of Black women wearing her beautiful, yet cage-like, paper dresses. Marie Antoinette is Dead (2017), a lush depiction of a woman wearing Garden Dress II, is displayed next to the garment.

Jean-Louis includes images of racial and sexual violence in the dress details or setting the model inhabits to remind viewers of the brutality underpinning historical wealth and power. Through the creation of these garments and women of color wearing them, Jean-Louis recasts history and reclaims the power and place of Black women so often portrayed, not in elegant dress, but as victim or servant. Jean-Louis states, “Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors.” The exhibition is on view from October 19 – January 15 (2024) in the Fenway Gallery.

Carla Fernandez: Tradition Is Not Static (Anne H. Fitzpatrick Facade)

Fashion designer Carla Fernández (b. 1973, Mexico), also a Gardner Museum Artist-in-Residence, has been commissioned to create a public work of art for
the Museum’s façade. On view October 3 – February 6 (2024), the work speaks to power, self-image and expression through fashion and text.

Fernández works with more than 187 artisans from sixteen states in Mexico. She explores the squares and rectangles of traditional Mexican patterning for the loom, and sustains long-standing creative partnerships with artisans, who
preserve the rich cultural heritage of Mexico’s Indigenous communities. She believes that tradition is always changing and developing and says it “moves the way the earth does — slowly and beautifully.”

In Tradition Is Not Static, taken during a fashion shoot in the Museum’s Little
Salon, a mask that became a bag plays at being a mask again. The Tecuánor Jaguar mask originates in the town of San Francisco Ozomatlán in the state of Guerrero. The artisans Santos and Claudio Nájera have used the same
centuries-old, hand-painted mask-making technique to create a handbag line with Fernández. The model’s hand painted linen garment was made in
collaboration with painter Isaías Salgado from Mexico City.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Inventing Isabella
October 19th, 2023 - January 15th, 2024

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