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.


spega said...

Worn down he may have been, but according to family tradition TJ Coolidge never loaned or 'gifted' the El Jaleo painting to ISG. In simple truth, she stole it from his house while he was in Europe and then built a pavillion around it--figuring he would look boorish if he asked for it back and publicly disputed her version of 'the gift' something a gentleman of the time (And TJC was a great gentleman) would never do. Particularly as she was her cousin by marriage and it would have caused a great scandal. Coolidge was an interesting figure in his own right--great grandson of Thomas Jefferson and last Minister to France. He was also related to John S. Sargent by marriage--his daughter married JSS's first cousin (perhaps one of the reasons he was interested in acquiring and retaining! El Jaleo).

SantaFeKate said...

Spega--thanks for your wonderful comment! I love how family stories can be "remembered" in different ways by different people. I'm curious if you've read Peggy Franck's book and have any opinions about it?

spega said...

No, my husband is descended from Coolidge-Sargent-Higginson line not the Sears line--so I am unfamiliar with her. It's also worth mentioning that at the time the painting was taken (and it *was* taken), I believe Thomas Jefferson Coolidge was living with his daughter and son-in-law Francis Lee Higginson and (I believe) the painting was hanging on the wall of the dining room. Gardner literally sent workmen with a truck to take it off the wall. When TJC returned, she had told everyone he had"given" her the painting and he felt he couldn't call her a liar (as a lady and a relative). But all the descriptions of her as a"maverick" conceal the truth--she was a terrible bully and thief.