Good lessons from the art & life of an eccentric Bostonian: “Dare to be different.”


BOSTON, Mass., Oct. 31, 2023 – This is a city my husband Chuck Offenburger had never visited.  That and the idea that we’d be driving the east half of the nation at a time when the countryside was changing colors, made it a perfect destination for our fall adventure.

I love Boston and was anxious to return because my last visit in 2009 didn’t include enough time to visit all the places on my ambitious itinerary.

For years, I’d wanted to visit the “Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” an art museum with a soaring indoor courtyard described by critics as “a palace turned inside out” with the stonework arches, columns, and walls accented by greenery and seasonal flowers.  And in 2012, the museum opened a 70,000-square-foot addition designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano. 

The fabulous interior courtyard. (Photos by Mary Riche)

Last week, Isabella and I finally met, even though she died in 1924, which was 23 years before I was born.  Chuck and I wandered through her four-story mansion and the new addition, too, which are near Fenway Park and steps away from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  Her museum made an unforgettable impression on both of us.

I was intrigued by the little bit of information I knew about her.  I cheered to learn that, in her will, she provided lifetime museum membership to anyone named Isabella. 

To some, she was a spoiled rich woman who smoked cigarettes, showed up at the Boston Symphony wearing a headband that said, “Oh you Red Sox,” and burned much of her correspondence that revealed unflattering information.  (Her friends Bernard Berenson and Henry James declined to destroy letters received from her, despite being instructed by her to do so.) 

I was disappointed to learn she was cool when suffragettes tried to enlist her public support for a woman’s right to vote.  But she was considered a “closet feminist” by others because she had many gay friends in the art world.

She was 59 years old when they broke ground for the current museum in 1898, and she paid daily visits to the construction site to make certain her exacting requirements and instructions were followed.  It was rumored that the project supervisor saw these visits as intrusions to the work because she had insisted on several “do-overs.” 

Isabella was born in New York City on April 14, 1840.  An only child, she inherited about $78 million, in today’s dollars, upon her father’s death, which permitted her to expand her smaller, personal collection to a more ambitious one.  

She continued to expand her art collection after she married John Jack Gardner, brother of her friend Julia Gardner, just before her 20th birthday in 1860.   He was also born into wealth; indeed, he was wealthy enough that, reportedly, he paid another man to fight in his place during the Civil War. 

The combined wealth of the Gardners could not prevent personal tragedy.  Isabella and Jack knew heartbreak after their son, John Lowell Gardner III, died before his second birthday in 1865.  Understandably, she was bereft and her husband took her to Europe on the advice of a physician.  The story is that she had to be carried onto the ship on a mattress.

Luckily for us, a new exhibit “Inventing Isabella” opened the day before we arrived, so our time with this mysterious woman was unforgettable for me.  I’m truly an art novice who loves to get “lost” in the art, and Isabella did not disappoint me. 

A lobby poster featuring gorgeous, stylish purple shoes captured my attention with the headline “Dare to be Different.”

Mary Riche with the poster in the lobby promoting the new “Inventing Isabella” exhibit.

This was my kind of woman, my kind of eclectic space, and I was downright gleeful.

There were three paintings of Isabella that particularly captured my interest.  If you traced my foot path, it was in the form of a triangle as I kept returning to study each. 

I focused on her eyes in each of the paintings.  As Shakespeare said, “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” and I was searching for Isabella’s soul.  After studying those paintings, I drew some conclusions that were a combination of fact and conjecture.

In the first, a commissioned portrait in 1888 by John Singer Sargent for $3,000, she is dressed in a black dress with pearls, rubies, and a plunging V-neck bodice.  A patterned background was spellbinding to me, creating the effect of either a halo or a crown, the kind of image that once you see it, you cannot “un-see” it.

That portrait was exhibited to great acclaim, until her husband expressed concern about the amount of flesh being shown and asked that it be kept in storage.  So, it remained private until Jack’s sudden death at the age of 61 in 1890.  Then it was displayed in the Gothic Room in the museum.   

Isabella Stewart Gardner in what is probably the most famous portrait of her.

After my three decades as a therapist working with couples on relationship issues, I have a pretty good idea about the discussion between this husband and wife about removing her portrait to private storage. 

Isabella’s art finder, Bernard Berenson, may have never heard the word “no” when suggesting a new purchase to her, based on the jaw-dropping amount of inventory in every available inch of space in this large museum.  Her deep pockets easily funded her varied interests as she amassed this collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, textiles, ceramics, manuscripts, 3,000 rare books, and 7,000 archival objects. 

She was strongly opinionated about how the acquisitions were to be displayed, without labels identifying information about the artist or the art.  That was a bit disconcerting to me until I got accustomed to entering a room, scanning the contents, and allowing myself to be drawn to whatever piqued my interest.  Gratefully, there were several knowledgeable docents.

The second of those three paintings is by Anders Zorn. He painted Isabella in Venice in 1894; the Zorns and Gardners were friends.  She stands on a balcony, lips slightly upturned, eyes in a direct gaze, wearing a floor length white dress, fitted waist, trademark pearls (that she had cut and fashioned into various lengths to be given to her relatives after her death), arms outstretched with her fingertips touching the walls on either side of her.  Her face looks mysteriously coy to me.

Isabella on a balcony in Venice.

The third painting, again by John Singer Sargent, was the last portrait painted of her, two years before her death, after a debilitating stroke.  It is titled “Mrs. Gardner in White.”  She referred to this work as an “informal sketch; a watercolor, not meant, I hope, to look like me.”  She’s wrapped in a white material that resembles gauze and there are circles under her eyes as they peer out from the hooded fabric.  She’s reclining and looks ghost-like in her frozen stare.  I found myself wishing that her final days were peaceful.

Isabella, late in life, draped in gauze-like fabric.

Finally, any story about Isabella’s Museum, including this one, must mention “the robbery” of 1990. 

That’s when two thieves, dressed as police officers, stole an estimated $500 million in art from her museum including five Degas, two Rembrandts and a Vermeer.  The art has never been recovered, and its heist continues to be one of the biggest unsolved crimes and most baffling mysteries in art history.

However, Isabella Stewart Gardner, the woman I “met” last week in her Boston museum, is much less a mystery to me after our visit.

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The RicheBurgers on a balcony above the courtyard.

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