Considering all we authoresses are products of the 21st century, certain things about early 19th century life seem a little… well, odd to us. Disregarding the lack of toothpaste, tampons and the right to vote, there are many subtle differences. One of the odder things, at least in my estimation, is the notion of a Patroness, in and of itself.
Nowadays, yes of course there are patrons of the arts. Lovely, usually rich people who donate time and money to organizations for the curation of old work and the development of new. But in the 19th century and before, artists, authors, musicians, didn’t fill out a bunch of paperwork for a grant to practice their craft — instead, they relied on the far less formalized kindness of socialites who took a liking to them and their work.
Often times, the artists would live in residence at the patron/patroness’s estate. (FYI, we do have rooms at Lady B’s for when we visit from the current century, each designed to fit our individual taste. Mine has a large blue police call box in it, which disappears randomly at times, but I digress.) There have been women like Lady B throughout history. Hester Thrale, a gently-born lady who married a moneyed brewer (and then later an Italian music master, because awesome), was one such a patron and writer herself, who was a close friend of Dr. Samuel Johnson – he had his own room at her house Streatham Park, where he often worked. And Germaine de Staël was an author who hosted one of the most famous salons during the French revolution, defying Napoleon and influencing thought and taste for over 25 years at the Chateau du Coppet in Switzerland. But my absolute favorite real life Lady B is Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Now, she may have been from the later 1800s (*gasp*) and she may have been American (*GASP*) but Mrs. Gardner for me personified the free spirit and intense passion for the arts and culture that I know Lady B has.
A member of the Boston elite during the Gilded Age, Mrs. Gardner was born into wealth and married into wealth. But her life was not without tragedy. Her only son died before the age of three, and when that happened, she and her husband took to travelling and collecting for solace. (Note: much like Lady B, she had nephews that she adopted as her heirs.) But Mrs. Gardner likes collecting artists as much as she did their art. Her home in Back Bay was often filled with up and coming painters of the day, like John Singer Sargent and James MacNeill Whistler. Not to mention authors like Henry James. She would even take artists with her on trips to Europe, Venice being her favorite place. (Remind me to ask Lady B to take me to Venice.)
Eventually, her collection of art grew so big, she built a museum to house and display it all. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is a gorgeous three-storied covered garden courtyard structure that has a massive collection of European art, and works from her era from her friends. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend a visit. (also, fun fact: it was the scene of a pretty massive art heist in 1990. Yes, art heist. Those things are real. Therefore, The Thomas Crown Affair could plausibly happen. I don’t know how to parlay this into me meeting Pierce Brosnan but it will happen.)
In any case, if you ever wondered about the provenance of Lady B’s general awesomeness, know this: we didn’t just make it up. It’s written in history.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Musuem is worth seeking out — but what’s your favorite little known museum?