Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in New York City on April 14, 1840. She was the child of David Stewart, of Scottish descent, who made his fortune in the Irish linen trade and later in mining investments. Her mother was Adelia Smith, descendant of Richard Smith, an Englishman who had settled in Boston in 1650. She was named for her beloved paternal grandmother, Isabella Tod Stewart.
Isabella Stewart was educated at private schools in New York and Paris. Her first connection with Boston came through her schooling, between 1856 and 1858 in Paris, where a friendship with schoolmate Julia Gardner led to her eventual marriage to Julia's older brother John ("Jack") Lowell Gardner Jr. (1837-1898) on April 10, 1860. The couple was married in New York City and moved to Boston, Jack's hometown, where they settled into a house, a wedding gift from her father, at 152 Beacon Street in the Back Bay section of the city.
Isabella gave birth to a son, John L. Gardner III, known as "Jackie." At just two years of age, Jackie died of pneumonia in March 1865, and during the two years that followed his death, Isabella Stewart Gardner endured depression and illness. At a doctor's suggestion, John Gardner took his wife to Europe to travel throughout Scandinavia, Russia, Vienna, and Paris and, upon returning home, Isabella Gardner was in good health and spirits. Although the Gardners had no more children, they raised their three nephews following the death of Jack's widowed brother.
Back in Boston, Isabella Gardner was an avid entertainer and frequent patron of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Gardners hosted dinner parties with well-known guests, including author Henry James, writer Sarah Orne Jewett, philosopher George Santayana, and writer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, as well as friends and artists like John Singer Sargent. The archives hold more than 7,000 letters from 1,000 correspondents as testaments to Isabella Gardner's social nature. These include glowing letters of thanks for dinner parties, concerts, and celebrations in her magnificent palazzo ("Has the music room dissolved, this morning, in the sunshine? I felt last night as though I were in a Hans Anderson Fairy Tale, ready to go on a flying carpet at any moment," T.R. Sullivan, Jan. 10, 1902). Isabella Stewart Gardner was also interested in sports. She attended Red Sox games, boxing matches, and hockey and football games at Harvard College. She relished in horse races, particularly if her horse won. Her motto was "Win as though you were used to it, and lose as if you like it."
In 1919, Isabella Stewart Gardner suffered the first of a series of strokes and died five years later, on July 17, 1924. Her will created an endowment of $1 million and outlined stipulations for the support of the museum, including that the permanent collection not be significantly altered. In keeping with her philanthropic nature, her will also left sizable bequests to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children, Animal Rescue League and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Isabella Stewart Gardner is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between her husband and her son.
Isabella Stewart Gardner traveled the world and worked with important art patrons and advisors Bernard Berenson and Okakura Kakuzo to amass a remarkable collection of master and decorative arts. In 1903, she completed the construction of Fenway Court in Boston to house her collection.