Curator Katharine Kuh once eavesdropped on the famous art patron and the even more famous artist.
In her book My Love Affair with Modern Art, Kuh recalled her mother taking her as a young girl to Boston and tipping the maître d’ heavily to get a table near them. Kuh wrote:
Sargent was handsome and elegant, Mrs. Gardner severely bent and dressed in what always looked to me like layers of cheesecloth …Their conversation appeared more sporadic than spirited, but there was a quiet forbearance between them signified a long friendship.
They maintained a long, lively and rewarding friendship. It started in 1886, when novelist Henry James introduced them. Isabella Stewart Gardner was 46 years old, married, and an established art patron whose unconventional behavior provided fodder for the Boston society pages. Sargent, 16 years her junior, was just then trying to consolidate his position as a society painter with his portrait of Madame X, a woman wearing a low-cut black dress with her head flung back in a dramatic pose. It backfired. The painting created a scandal.
They were bound to become friends.
John Singer Sargent
Sargent had been hurt by the criticism of Madame X and moved his studio from Paris to London, where Isabella Stewart Gardner was visiting. When James suggested she view the painting, she had just enough time to visit the studio before she and her husband, Jack Gardner, had to catch their boat home.
The next year, John Singer Sargent came to Boston to paint society portraits. Isabella commissioned him to paint her portrait and invited him to stay at her lavish Back
Bay home. He did, and the gossip spread that they were having an affair. Isabella, cultivating her reputation for outrageous behavior, did nothing to deny the rumors.
Sargent had a hard time getting the painting just right. He painted her in a low-cut black dress, her bosom thrust slightly forward and a string of pearls circling her waist, to emphasize her figure. He finished the painting in January 1888. She loved it. Her husband hated it.
The portrait was exhibited at the prestigious St. Botolph Club in Boston. Jack overheard someone at his club comment on it. Remarking on Isabella’s decolletage, the clubman said, one could ‘see nearly all the way down to Crawford’s Notch.’ Jack Gardner took the painting and never let it leave his home.
That didn’t stop the friendship between John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardner. In 1899, when he was living abroad, U.S. newspapers erroneously reported his death. He sent a telegram to Isabella: ALIVE AND KICKING. SARGENT. In 1916, when she was 76, they went to see a Charlie Chaplin movie together.
Over the years, Isabella Stewart Gardner would buy 60 of John Singer Sargent’s paintings. She bought one of his masterpieces, El Jaleo, and built a Venetian palace near the Back Bay Fens for it and the rest of her collection. It is now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
All told, John Singer Sargent painted three portraits of her, one when she was 82 and swathed in the white cheesecloth Katharine Kuh saw her wear.
Isabella Stewart Gardner died at the age of 84, on July 17, 1924. Sargent then died on what would have been her next birthday, April 14, 1925.
This story about John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardner was updated in 2022.