Chasing BeautyChasing Beauty

As she visited Boston’s famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Dr. Natalie Dykstra of the Hope College English faculty couldn’t help but wonder about the founder for whom it’s named. Who was the person who did something that for a woman in 1903 was almost unthinkable: design, build, fill and endow a museum for the public to enjoy in perpetuity?

Natalie DykstraDykstra has spent the last 10 years seeking an answer, continuing after retiring from Hope in 2020, scouring archives and visiting sites in both the U.S. and Europe that were important in Gardner’s story. Dykstra’s quest has culminated in the critically acclaimed biography “Chasing Beauty: The Life of Isabella Stewart Gardner,” published earlier this year — a century after Gardner’s death in 1924 at age 84 — by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.  The book has been praised by, among others, the New York Times, which has described it as “exquisitely detailed and perceptive,” and the Wall Street Journal, which has called it “a sympathetic, impeccably researched biography.”


The museum, Dykstra noted, is something of a three-dimensional memoir, with every detail reflecting Gardner’s aesthetic and vision.  She collected the art, and on deciding to build the museum was onsite during its construction, giving directions to workers and requiring that features that didn’t meet her standards be redone.  She designed the rooms and decided herself where the art would go, and in addition to endowing the museum, her will required that her arrangement of the art could never be changed.

“The Venetian-style palazzo is filled floor to ceiling with the paintings, tapestries, prints, porcelain, rare books, manuscripts and fine furniture collected by its founder,” Dykstra said. “A friend of hers at the time said, ‘You have her when you have the museum’ — it so expresses her:  her interests, her passions, her relationships, what mattered to her.”

However, she said, while the museum embodies Gardner’s persona and priorities, the building and its exhibits don’t explain what her persona and priorities were and how they came to be.  That’s the illumination that Dykstra set out to provide, tracking Gardner’s 84 years from childhood through her final days to reveal not only the events of her life but their interplay.

Born in New York in 1840, Gardner attended school for a time in France.  She met her husband, John “Jack” Lowell Gardner, through his sister, and the couple settled in Boston.  They hoped to have a family, but endured a stillbirth, the death of their son Jackie at 20 months, a miscarriage and then her doctor’s report that she could not have more children.

“She was devastated by this loss,” Dykstra said.  “And then, after a time, she got up and pursued a lot of different things.  She traveled with Jack; she started reading Dante; she went to listen to Charles Eliot Norton’s lectures on art; she began collecting rare books, which are an important part of her collection; and then she started to collect masterpieces.”

“She collected Italian Renaissance masters, such as Titian, Botticelli and Raphael, when many elite Bostonians were collecting painters from the fashionable French Barbizon School,” Dykstra said.  “She also collected a Vermeer and multiple Rembrandts.”

Following Jack’s death in 1898, the civic-minded Gardner next devoted herself to sharing her collection.

“She returned from her many overseas adventures to create a world-class art museum in an effort to push her city and country forward onto a larger cultural stage,” Dykstra said.  “She wanted to provide a way for people without her resources to have an immersive experience with great art akin to what she’d had on her travels, aesthetic encounters that had so pleased and transformed her.”

In New York City, Dykstra visited historic Grace Church, which Gardner attended growing up, and discovered that her parents had donated a stained-glass window in memory of her three siblings, who had predeceased her — a familial history of linking art and memory.  In the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society, she found the diary of a friend with whom Gardner had attended boarding school in Paris, and with it details about teachers, social life and Gardner’s capacity for “jollification.”  In Venice, Italy, Dykstra visited the same palazzo that had so enthralled Gardner on her travels that she modelled her museum after it.  Dykstra read period newspaper accounts of how Gardner dared to scandalize high society — like by wearing a Red Sox headband to a Boston Symphony concert.

Dykstra also managed a large cast of often-famous characters who frequently appeared in Gardner’s orbit.  It’s a veritable who’s who of the Gilded Age that includes, among others, abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe; author Henry James; playwright Oscar Wilde; general (and New Jersey governor) George McClellan; U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt; the artists John Singer Sargent and James Whistler; and historian Henry Adams and Adams’ wife, Clover, the latter of whom was the subject of a previous book by Dykstra.

The project made for an active decade, and Dykstra hopes that readers will enjoy the result as much as she enjoyed the process.

“There are aspects of your subject’s life that you know quite a bit about — that’s in part why you’re drawn to them,” Dykstra said. “But then there are always arenas in your life that require you to do a lot of reading and research.”

“My Ph.D. was in American studies, which is multidisciplinary, and this book drew on every skill I could muster,” she said. “There were so many characters to keep track of, and paintings and titles of paintings, and furniture, porcelain and different kinds of art.  But what a pleasure to think about art in such a sustained way. It became really important to me to have the reader be able to picture or imagine Gardner looking at paintings, so I needed to look at the paintings a lot, so that I could understand what that felt like. It was an enormous education and privilege.”

“I also came to admire her,” Dykstra said.  “She had a fiery temper and loved attention, but she was also really good at giving attention.  She was an intense personality — it must have seemed like high beams were coming at you — but she was incredibly disciplined in her work, and emotionally disciplined.”

“I learned a lot from her: ‘How do you pick yourself up?’  She had the worst thing happen, losing her children, and yet she was an optimist,” Dykstra said.

Dykstra was a member of the Hope faculty for 20 years before retiring, and today lives near Boston with her husband.  She became interested in Gardner while conducting research in Boston for her book about Clover Adams, “Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life,” published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  She received external support for “Chasing Beauty” including a 2018 Public Scholar Program Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a 2018 Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowship from Biographers International Organization.  She was assisted in her research by Hope students, not only on campus but in Boston and France, work funded by Mellon Foundation grants and Jack Nyenhuis summer faculty fellowships.

For her work on Clover Adams, she had also received an NEH fellowship, as well as grants from the Schlesinger Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society, where she was elected a Fellow in 2011.  “Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life” was named a Must-Read book of 2013 in the 13th Annual Massachusetts Book Awards — and featured in “Books About Curious Minds, Recommended for the Curious Minded” in The New York Times.

“Chasing Beauty: The Life of Isabella Stewart Gardner” is available in hardcover, and totals 495 pages including detailed notes and an index.  The book retails for $37.50, and copies are available through Holland-area booksellers including the Hope College Bookstore, Reader’s World, and Barnes and Noble; and online through Amazon as well as the publisher.