In the winter of 1903, shortly after the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum first opened to the public, John Singer Sargent used the Gothic Room of the museum as a studio. Among the portraits he painted was one of Isabella’s dear friends, Gretchen Osgood Warren. This finely illustrated gem of a publication explores these three remarkable friends: Isabella Stewart Gardner, the museum’s founder and patroness of the arts; John Singer Sargent, premier portrait painter and the museum’s first artist-in-residence; and Gretchen Osgood Warren, a highly accomplished Gilded Age woman.
The collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum includes an astonishing array of objects, including renowned paintings, rare books, sculpture, and decorative arts, as well as more personal items such as collected letters, Isabella’s own correspondence, and ephemera. Mirroring Isabella’s inimitable gallery installations, this publication uses both fine and decorative art, photographs, and correspondence to provide a snapshot in time of the first few years of the museum, in which the collection and its carefully curated spaces inspired new works of art.
As the museum’s first artist-in-residence, Sargent fulfilled Gardner’s hopes for a new kind of cultural institution in Boston, one that would inspire creativity, cultivate artistic talent, and bring joy to artists and amateurs alike. Sargent painted five portraits during his stay at the museum and John Templeman Coolidge, a friend of Gardner’s, captured Sargent at work in the Gothic Room in seven candid photographs. Cigarette in mouth, brush in hand, and a smile on his face, Sargent is seen painting Gretchen Osgood Warren and her daughter who are posing and laughing. This vibrant double portrait stands as a testament to Sargent’s absorption of the museum’s inspirational qualities and his sensitivity to his subject.
Gretchen Osgood Warren was intellectually ambitious and after sitting for her portrait with Sargent, she moved to England with her family and pursued a degree in philosophy and metaphysics at Oxford University. Gardner embraced an increasingly progressive view of women’s rights by the turn of the century and looked approvingly on the educational, political, and professional ambitions of Gretchen Warren’s generation. In Warren, Gardner also discovered a deeply appreciative and sympathetic friend. The eighteen letters between the two women, published here for the first time, illustrate an intimate thirty-five year friendship sharing life’s joys, successes, hardships, and losses.