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Book Review / Biography

A Woman's Life Overwhelmed by Exclamation Points

THE ART OF SCANDAL: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner by Douglass Shand-Tucci; HarperCollins $27.50, 352 pages

February 04, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), founder of the lovely, eccentric Gardner Museum in Boston, led an unusual and interesting life, and her story no doubt deserves to be told. Unfortunately, Douglass Shand-Tucci's telling of her tale is simultaneously breathlessly admiring and tedious.

Gardner was born in New York City and moved to Boston in 1860 when she married Jack Gardner, who was considered a great catch. Their only son died when he was 2. Their life was further marred by the suicide, at age 25, of a nephew whom they had adopted and raised. The Gardners had a supportive and companionable, though not necessarily romantic, marriage, and throughout Isabella's life she developed a series of consumingly passionate but apparently nonsexual relationships with various men.

Because Gardner failed at (or rejected) the roles of traditional wife and mother, Shand-Tucci argues, she was liberated to become "muse, mentor and patron" to some of the most talented men of her time, including Henry James, George Santayana, Bernard Berenson and John Singer Sargent. The latter titled his daring, beautiful portrait of Gardner "Woman--an Enigma" (1888). One historian has described the work as "an audacious portrait of a cultural maverick," and it evidently made Gardner's husband acutely uncomfortable.

It is clear that Gardner--whom Shand-Tucci portrays as headstrong, emotionally intense, brilliant, selfish, generous, controlling, depressed and bold--had a profound effect on others. Henry Adams called her "quite the most remarkable woman I ever met," though he didn't seem to know quite why. Berenson said she "was the biggest and deepest and most fascinating nature I ever came across." James likened her to "a figure in a wondrous cinquecento tapestry." Indeed, she inspired James again and again, and was reportedly the model for his famously independent lady, Isabel Archer.

Isabella Gardner is best remembered for two accomplishments. First, in counterpoint to the "Victorian convention and artificiality" that dominated Boston's upper crust, she nurtured, inspired, befriended and supported a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers, many of whom were homosexual. Second, and more significantly, she used the fortune inherited from her father--nearly 2 million pre-1900 dollars--to amass an astonishing, eclectic art collection and in particular to bring then-unappreciated Italian Renaissance masterpieces to America.

But there were many things Gardner was not. She lived during one of the most tumultuous eras in American history, an era that included the Civil War, Reconstruction, the explosion of industrial capitalism and the rise of the socialist, trade-union, Populist, suffragist and transcendentalist movements. Gardner was interested in virtually none of this; indeed, as she herself wrote, her sole concern was "seeing and doing only what is beautiful. I thank the Lord I am not as other men are, who bother about the Dreyfus case."

Nonetheless, Shand-Tucci imposes a peculiarly modern, inorganically political grid on Isabella Gardner's life. He obstinately depicts her as a figure who played an important role in the "gay, Jewish, Irish Catholic, African American and feminist communities," fought against fundamental prejudices and "celebrated Jews, blacks, women and gays." None of this is remotely convincing. And Shand-Tucci's political anachronisms sometimes infect his aesthetic analyses; his biggest blooper in this vein occurs when he describes Titian's "Europa"--perhaps Gardner's most important acquisition--as depicting "the most notorious 'date-rape' of all time."

Shand-Tucci's book is promiscuously strewn with speculation: phrases like "must have been," "in all likelihood" and "it was probably" recur with annoying regularity. (Most absurd supposition: "She would undoubtedly . . . have bought a major league baseball club.") His syntax is often convoluted. And he uses more exclamation points than Dr. Seuss. (Typical sentence: "He was just the man for Isabella Gardner!") This lends "The Art of Scandal" an oddly amateurish air that, given its other faults, it certainly doesn't need. Or, should I say: that it certainly doesn't need!

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