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Isabella Stewart Gardner was ‘the brightest, breeziest woman in Boston’

“A fairy in a machine shop” was how the essayist John Jay Chapman described her.

ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER, the novelist Henry James once said, “is not a woman, she is a locomotive - with a Pullman car attached.’’ James, who introduced her to John Singer Sargent, two of whose portraits of her hang in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, considered himself a friend. Imagine how Gardner’s detractors must have felt.

Gardner was that vivid a personality. It comes as no surprise that she and the actress Sarah Bernhardt were mutual admirers. As a New York society magazine described her in 1887, Gardner was “the brightest, breeziest woman in Boston.’’ She was “the idol of the men and the envy of the women.’’

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She was born in New York on April 14, 1840. Gardner, who liked to claim descent from Britain’s Stuart kings, was the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She grew up in New York, but the two determining events of her life took place in Europe.

In 1856, Isabella (“Belle,’’ to family and friends) went to attend finishing school in Paris. One of her classmates, Julia Gardner, had an older brother John Jr. (“Jack’’ to family and friends). The Gardners, who’d made a fortune in shipping in Salem, now lived in Boston. Belle and Jack married four days before her 20th birthday.

Jack Gardner was every bit as conventional as his wife was not. The Harvard philosopher George Santayana thought him a “subordinate, comic, errand-boy partner.’’ Yet he “always countenanced, supported, and (invisibly) stood by her,’’ Santayana conceded. “Mrs. Jack,’’ the most famous of the several nicknames Isabella Stewart Gardner had, was the one she bore most proudly.

The other crucial European event took place after Gardner had left Paris but before returning home. She and her family visited the Poldi Pezzoli Palace, in Milan, a private home with a superb art collection. It became a museum in 1881. A friend recalled Gardner’s saying at the time that she wanted “a house . . . like the one in Milan filled with beautiful pictures and objects of art, for people to come and enjoy.’’ Forty-five years later that vision came to pass, at Fenway Court, as Gardner called her final home and future museum.

The Gardners lived at first with his parents, then in a residential hotel, before moving into a French-style town house on Beacon Street. Breaking down an adjoining wall, they added the one next door to it, in 1880. Their only child, a boy, died of pneumonia. He wasn’t quite 2. They would later adopt Jack Gardner’s three orphaned nephews, whom their aunt doted on.

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Cold Roast Boston had never seen anyone quite like Gardner. “A fairy in a machine shop’’ was how the essayist John Jay Chapman described her in an obituary tribute. An excellent and enthusiastic dancer, Gardner got her gowns from Worth and jewels from Boucheron (both of Paris). “I never in all my life caught a cold in a ball dress,’’ she liked to say. The neckline of the gown she wore in her first Sargent portrait revealed minimal decolletage, yet it was enough to shock Back Bay. The artist “had painted Mrs. Gardner all the way down to Crawford’s Notch’’ was a much-repeated quip.

Stories had a way of gathering around Gardner. Some were even true. When she and her husband just missed a train to Prides Crossing, she suggested they rent a locomotive sitting on a nearby track. Which they did, arriving shortly after the missed train.

When a man opened a zoo on Boylston Street (it was a different Back Bay in those days), Gardner took to visiting its two lion cubs, even taking them out in her coach. This led to a story (and cartoon) that she’d walked one on a leash.

Gardner was a woman of great enthusiasms, both cultural and otherwise. Sometimes the two coincided. At a Boston Symphony concert she wore a headband bearing the words “Oh you Red Sox’’ (in red letters, of course).

She owned a thoroughbred for several years, hosted a boxing match in the Beacon Street house, and brought the Harvard football team to Fenway Court for a dinner to celebrate its victory over Yale. Not that cuisine mattered that much to her. At least one attendee recalled that Gardner had doughnuts and champagne served the night of Fenway Court’s very grand opening.

An admirer of James Michael Curley, Gardner was in turn admired by another famous Boston Irishman, John L. Sullivan. The story goes that the heavyweight champion escorted her carriage to safety when it somehow got in the middle of a South Boston mob during a labor strike.

Although Gardner had long been a collector, her purchases had been more in the way of first editions and furnishings. She didn’t buy her first Old Master, a Zurbaran “Madonna and Child,’’ until 1888. Three years later, her father left her $1.75 million dollars. Between that then-hefty sum and her husband’s fortune, there was no stopping her, as the contents of Fenway Court demonstrate.

Gardner had begun to discuss the design of a museum when her husband died, in 1898. In his final and most important show of support, Jack Gardner had urged his wife to give up trying to redesign the Beacon Street town houses and instead build a new home for her collection. One hundred fifty invitations went out for its opening, on Jan. 1, 1903.

A stroke in 1919 left Gardner unable to walk, and a subsequent one left her unable to use her hands. She died in 1924. Two years before that, Sargent painted his second portrait of her, this time in watercolor. White fabric covers everything but Gardner’s face. The combined effect of dress, shawl, and turban is of a shroud, one that conceals her disabilities but even more emphasizes how penetrating her gaze remains. One look at those eyes explains the remark of Bernard Berenson, the great art connoisseur who served as Gardner’s adviser and agent. “We are all playing a losing game,’’ he wrote her in a letter; “you play it better than anyone else in the world.’’

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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