An Exquisite Biography of a Gilded Age Legend

CHASING BEAUTY: The Life of Isabella Stewart Gardner, by Natalie Dykstra

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.

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.

A portrait both of a lady and of a glittering era, Natalie Dykstra’s “Chasing Beauty” draws from Gardner’s travelogues, scrapbooks and few surviving letters to track her subject’s expanding sensibilities as an art collector. Dykstra, the author of an acclaimed biography of Clover Adams, astutely situates her subject within Gardner’s growing web of connections: expatriates, artists and scholars.

Privilege didn’t inure the Gardners to tragedy: In 1865, their toddler son, John III, died of pneumonia. Belle’s grief metastasized into severe depression when, following a miscarriage, she was told not to make further attempts to have children. When a doctor suggested she travel abroad, Belle was so frail that she had to be carried onto the boat on a cot. (Ten years later, they would take over guardianship of their three nephews after Jack’s brother, Joe, shot himself; his wife had died in childbirth.)

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