- Historic Sites
Mrs. Jack And Her Back Bay Palazzo
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
“I knew not then whether it was lost or won. What I did know was that the Atalanta of that Sunday morning was Mrs. Jack Gardner and Melanion Mr. John S. Sargent.”
Sargent and others who were inspired to immortalize Mrs. Jack in paint did not find it an easy task: she was a rather homely woman. But though her features were plain, she had some good points: sparkling eyes, fine arms and shoulders, and a magnificent presence. Sargent’s best-known portrait of her, which hangs in the place of honor at Fenway Court, shows her standing regally in a plain black dress with a rope of pearls about her waist. The dress is tight and the neckline is cut a little lower than was the style of that day, but modern visitors to Fenway Court are usually at a loss to understand why the painting was regarded as so daring that her husband locked it up for his lifetime. The truth is that he had some provocation. John Lowell Gardner loved his wife, indulged her whims, and generally paid no attention to the gossip about her. But when the new Sargent painting was hung in an exhibition at one of his Boston clubs, some man made a remark that alluded, first, to the rumor of a previous affair with the writer F. Marion Crawford, and second, to a well-known geographical feature of the White Mountains. What the bounder said was, “Sargent has painted Mrs. Gardner all the way down to Crawf ord’s Notch.” It was when he heard of that remark that Gardner finally lost his temper and ordered the painting put away. Belle was unperturbed, although she did remark, when asked for a contribution to the Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary, that she did not know there was a charitable eye or ear in Boston.
No matter how much they gossiped and carped at Mrs. Jack’s behavior, proper Bostonians seldom refused her invitations. For she gathered into her circle not only the most brilliant of the talented young men but also the established intellectual luminaries of Boston and Cambridge. Among her closest friends and admirers were Henry and William James, Henry Adams, Charles Eliot Norton, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The literary lions were as dazzled as anyone else by Mrs. Jack, and more gifted than others in their elevated flattery. Henry Adams began a letter, “Wonderful Woman!” Henry James wrote: “I think of you as a figure on a wondrous Cinquecento tapestry—and of myself as one of the small quaint accessory domestic animals, a harmless worm, or the rabbit who is very proud and happy to be in the same general composition with you.”
If Boston’s social matrons felt it necessary to keep an eyebrow perpetually raised at Mrs. Jack, other elements in the population were quite delighted by her. Their sense of propriety was not offended when, on a Sunday morning in Lent, she drove down to the Church of the Advent with a mop and bucket and did her penance by swabbing down the steps of the church. When her carriage was caught in a mob during some labor troubles in South Boston, a voice rang out, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Jack. I’ll see you get through.” It was her friend John L. Sullivan, then heavyweight champion of the world.
Foreigners, understandably, were sometimes taken aback by her customs. Once, during a trip to Italy, she dispatched a handsome bouquet of yellow roses with her compliments to the king, Umberto. Unused to receiving presents from ladies, His Majesty sent an equerry to ascertain just what the lady’s intentions were. It took not only her husband but also the U.S. ambassador to Italy to convince the court that Mrs. Jack was not an adventuress with designs on the king but simply an American who was accustomed to sending flowers to men she admired.
Mrs. Jack’s male admirers, young and old, were of great help to her in what soon became the serious business of her life, the collection of great works of art. Sargent became her adviser on purchases, as did James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who had drawn a portrait sketch of her in London. Henry Adams found for her the magnificent stained-glass windows which may once have graced the abbey of Saint Denis. Henry James and others kept an eye out for noble English families that might be ready to part with the family treasures. Most important of all to Mrs. Jack was Bernard Berenson, whom she had taken up when he was a young fine-arts student at Harvard with long, curly hair and soft eyes. Berenson went on to become the world’s leading authority on Italian Renaissance art and Mrs. Jack’s adviser and agent for years.
At first the paintings were intended—or so she said—simply for her own house on Beacon Street. But they were purchased with a care and a sure judgment of quality that were seldom matched by buyers for the world’s great museums. “I haven’t enough money to buy second-rate things,” she once said. “I can buy only the best.”
Before she died Mrs. Jack had acquired the finest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings in the United States; it still ranks second only to that of the National Gallery, which received the collection of Andrew Mellon. Its single greatest treasure is Titian’s Rape of Europa , bought through Berenson’s skillful agency for twenty thousand pounds (then one hundred thousand dollars) from Lord Darnley. Rubens thought it the greatest picture in the world and painted a copy of it, which is now a treasure of the Prado in Madrid. Later Van Dyck, who had never seen the original, painted a copy of Rubens’ copy, and Mrs. Jack bought that .