Wednesday, July 20, 2011

El Jaleo, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and TJ Coolidge

El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent
The painting El Jaleo hangs on the first floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in a space and setting designed by Isabella to truly showcase this huge (11 feet wide!) and beautiful work by John Singer Sargent. I have admired it numerous times; when I taught at Simmons College (located right across Palace Road from the Gardner) I  frequently ate lunch in the lovely little Gardner cafĂ©, and always stopped for a few moments on my way to lunch to study this painting.

But I just learned today that two of my favorite women from 1905 Boston, Eleonora Randolph Sears and Isabella herself, had a connection through this painting. (Click here to read my previous post about Eleonora.)

Eleo's grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, had seen Sargent's talent early on and purchased the painting in 1882, shortly after it was first exhibited by the 26-year-old painter. Isabella, who was a friend (and a cousin by marriage) of Eleo's mother (and TJ's daughter), Nora Coolidge Sears, coveted the painting and tried to buy it from Coolidge for 30 years. According to Eleo biographer Peggy Miller Franck, Coolidge put her off with vague assurances that he would sell it to her one day.

In 1914, most likely worn down after the death of both Nora and her brother in 1912, TJ agreed to loan El Jaleo to ISG for an exhibition she was planning.

Isabella had spent 30 years imagining how to display the painting for maximum effect. In 1914 she directed some major remodeling in Fenway Court (now the Gardner Museum) and constructed a new gallery for the painting, set off by a Moorish stone arch edged with mirrors, and with a display of musical instruments and a row of footlights on the floor in front of the painting. Frank says that when "T.J. saw the showcase that Belle had created, he gave the painting to her."


Information from Peggy Miller Franck's Prides Crossing:  The Unbridled Life and Impatient Times of Eleonora Sears, Beverly:  Commonwealth Editions, 2009.