From page to stage: Isabella Stewart Gardner's photograph albums and the development of her museum, 1874-1924
Riley, Casey K.
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This dissertation traces the arc of Isabella Stewart Gardner's professional development through her photographic and archival practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While Gardner's museum in Boston is well known, she destroyed evidence pertinent to her curatorial agenda. To recover these methods, this project surveys Gardner's involvement with photography through two of her earliest travel albums, all fifteen of her illustrated guest books, and five albums of the evolving galleries in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The process of photographic album making supported strategies of research, collection, installation, and preservation that Gardner would use as a patron and institutional leader. Gardner's albums illuminate her actions not only as a collector of travel photography by Antonio Beato, Francis Frith, Pascal Sebah, and others, but also as a snapshot photographer and a commissioner of professional architectural photography in Boston. Her multivalent photographic practices reveal the ways in which she used albums and photography to realize her professional ambitions. Collecting, creating, arranging, and displaying photographs were not sentimental pastimes for Gardner, but processes intrinsic to the formation of her identity as a cosmopolitan innovator and civic leader. The first chapter analyzes the handwritten narrative, watercolor paintings, and commercial photography of Egyptian antiquities in Gardner's 1874-1875 "Egypt Diary" to discover the earliest origins for her actions as a collector. The second chapter analyzes the photographic assemblages of Gothic architecture in Gardner's 1879 travel albums of England to show how that journey influenced her design of the galleries and garden at Fenway Court. The third chapter reads Gardner's guest books as socially networked photographic objects to demonstrate their role in cultivating institutional supporters and shaping the cultural mission of her museum. The fourth chapter establishes the importance of reproductive technologies in the assembling of Gardner's collection of art and the pivotal role of architectural photography in the preservation of her civic bequest. The case studies within this dissertation form a comprehensive examination of Gardner's photographic engagements and the importance of photography in the formation and preservation of her institutional legacy.