A Boston Gallery Imagines a “Scandalous” Contemporary Collection for Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner, as the novelist Henry James once said, “is not a woman, she is a locomotive—with a Pullman car attached.” Indeed, the aristocratic and nonconformist Gardner (1840–1924) was ahead of her time in many ways, perhaps most significantly as an enthusiast and collector of fine art.

Gardner’s privilege and wealth afforded her exceptional access in the art world. She considered John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler personal friends, and she traveled extensively with her husband, Jack Gardner, collecting pieces from all over Europe, Egypt, Turkey, and the Far East.

  • Works featured in “The Art of Scandal: What Might Isabella Stewart Gardner Collect Today?” Image courtesy of Childs Gallery.

    Works featured in “The Art of Scandal: What Might Isabella Stewart Gardner Collect Today?” Image courtesy of Childs Gallery.

Her tastes were eclectic, her plans ambitious: She rocked prim and proper Boston society when she announced her decision to build an opulent Venetian-style palazzo to house her vast collection. She further ruffled the feathers of her fellow fine art enthusiasts with her unconventional organization of the exhibition spaces, where she mixed European paintings, sculptures, and furniture with textiles and objects from the far-flung corners of the world.

Daring as it may be to predict which contemporary artists might have intrigued her if she were alive today, that’s exactly what Childs Gallery sets out to do with “The Art of Scandal,” an ambitious new group exhibition that pairs recent work with photographic references to pieces from Gardner’s actual collection. The show—which is timed with the release of a new, expanded version of Douglas Shand-Tucci’s biography, The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner—features work from a diverse range of artists, including a celebrated French printmaker, a Bolivian sculptor, and a Boston-based performance artist. For good measure, there’s even a Mapplethorpe: Italian Devil (1988).

As her biographer notes, Gardner was a fan of Venice and the Italian Renaissance as well as religious and classical imagery, a preference that’s reflected in the inclusion of several pieces by the tempera painter Michael Bergt. The Crown (2009), gilded and dramatic, looks like it was plucked from another era, as do dreamy Venetian postcard-style scenes by Adam Van Doren. Likewise, Cuban photographer Abelardo Morell captures the romance of La Serenissima in Camera Obscura: View of Volta del Canal in Palazzo Room Painted with Jungle Motif, Venice, Italy (2006).

Erik Desmazières, who’s been described as “arguably the finest French printmaker of his generation,” also creates work that looks centuries old. The incredible detail of his La Tentation de Saint-Antoine (1993) summons the ghost Hieronymus Bosch.

But Gardner wasn’t exclusively interested in Western art, of course. Thomas Darsney’s East and West (2016) embodies the Far East exoticism that so thrilled the legendary collector. A “scandal,” perhaps, but Gardner made an art of it.


—Bridget Gleeson


The Art of Scandal: What Might Isabella Stewart Gardner Collect Today?” is on view at Childs Gallery, Boston, Mar. 16–May 14, 2016.

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