Beauteous Belle of Boston

Don’t be cowed by that imperious stare. Scandalous socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840 – 1924) was famed, not for her lordly presumptuousness, but for her celebrated bosom and her coveted Botticellis. It was said that on the Boston Common, she would strut her shapely stuff in a frock so form-fitting that crowds gathered to stare. (“Saw Belle last night,” wrote a friend. “Saw a lot of her!”)

It was said she had a perverse sense of fun too, parading a leashed lion up and down Boston’s trendy Tremont Street, making quite a spectacle of her splendid self in the process.

There was no disputing the lady’s love for the finer things in life, courtesy of a Parisian finishing school, and with the help of a prosperous husband, a $2 million inheritance, a well developed habit of acquisition and that oft acclaimed discerning “eye,” she collected the classic masterpieces she craved.



It appears her “eye,” however, was not confined to the long deceased masters. Stories abound on the doyenne’s carnal appetites as well. At one swank soirée, it was reported, guests got a goodly gander at boxer John L. Sullivan, who, in his attempts to impress the object of his ardor, stripped to his trunks and, egged on by his hostess, flexed his perfect pectorals for all to admire.

Apparently, having worked out a satisfactory (if somewhat unusual) marital arrangement with his wife, Mr. Gardner, on the other hand, obligingly turned a blind eye to the male harem streaming into his home.

Lovesick beaus, like the young Henry James turned up from time to time with heart in hand, sighing in scores of mash notes to his beauteous Belle over “pretty little evenings” and “the harmony of your presence.” For the smitten Dr. Henry Bigelow, there seemed “to be no alternative but to sit … and think of the way your dress fits.”

Prophetic words, indeed. Since it was the outrageous gown Belle chose to pose in for John Singer Sargent’s famous painting of her in 1888 (still cutting a comely figure at 48) that resulted in a veritable firestorm, the likes of which Boston had never seen.



So risque was her trés décolleté gown thought to be in the staid old Beantown of the times that, as one snooty old gentleman gasped, it ran “all the way down to Crawford’s Notch.”

“When the painting was shown at the St. Botolph Club, Boston, it caused a bit of a stir. The décolletage and the flattering curves of her dress made her husband request that the painting never be exhibited in public again during his lifetime. Mrs. Jack honored his wishes and even refused repeated requests by Sargent to show it in other exhibitions until after her own death, but she clearly loved the painting.”

Let us take a moment to bow our heads in gratitude at the stunning difference between what was and what now is. With limitless exceptions, of course.



Throughout her life, Belle’s every action was met with wagging tongues and incessant gossip among well-bred Bostonians who, for sport and spite, whispered behind her curvaceous back at every opportunity. Not one to wilt under disgrace, she adopted her own singular style of matching what one might coyly call “an eye for an eye” (with pun intended). When asked to contribute to the Boston Charitable Eye and Ear Association, the much-snubbed socialite snapped: “I didn’t know there was a charitable eye or ear in Boston.”

Yet, in the end, the beauteous Belle conquered all. Not as a libertine or a loudmouth, but as a benefactress, who in 1903, in a celebratory evening filled with music, art, gardens and a menu of champagne and donuts, made her city the great gift of the world-renowned Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Though that glorious gallery overflowed with spoils plundered from the capitals of Europe — Titians, Rembrandts, and Raphaels among them — not every breathtaking object d’art was an import. Being the incorrigible collector that she was, Belle was able to find local loveliness that rivaled her own. As long as she lived, she insisted, the museum was to be staffed exclusively by handsome Harvard men.

A Y-shaped flue is clearly visible on the front of the Museum, over Isabella Gardner’s seal and motto, “C’est mon plaisir” (meaning “It is my pleasure”).


Photograph, Photographer, Unknown, Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1907
Painting: Anders Zorn’s Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice
Painting: John Singer Sargent, 1888
Courtyard: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum




~ by eaesthete on 04/27/10.

6 Responses to “Beauteous Belle of Boston”

  1. I have wanted to visit the Isabella Gardner Museum since I first learned about it 10 years ago. My husband and I do not go to Boston often but recently we talked about it and that is the one place I said I had to see. We only live 3 hours north of there, “all the way down to Crawfords’ Notch”. Great trivia, most of which I haven’t heard. We usually only hear about the theft of the paintings, etc. She sounds like a real character and now I want to go more than ever. Thanks.

  2. CG,

    It’s interesting you should mention the thefts. I came across an article discussing Gardner’s precision in preparing her last will and testament with its very explicit instructions, stating that not “one of the 2500 objets d’art in its palatial rooms must ever be moved.” The will is so ironclad that, nearly 18 years after thieves absconded with a Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and several other canvasses, it is said that their eviscerated frames are still on the wall.


    Definitely, a “must see” I would think.

  3. A beautiful look at a beautiful person, her legacy speaks for her passion. merci beaucoup.

  4. What a wonderful post. I have never heard of this lady before and would like to thank you for the beautiful introduction. She, most certainly, sounds like an extremely eclectic person who enjoyed attention. I will look forward to reading more about her. Wishing you wonderful day.:-)

  5. It’s true. The frames hang empty which is probably one of two reasons why the theft and museum continue to receive a great deal of attention. The other reason is, the crime is unsolved.


    Oh, that is intriguing! The perfect plot for a Patricia Highsmith style thriller.

  6. I have enjoyed this post VERY much! quite interesting, and fun…

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