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Icons of the Past: Fabricated and Fashioned


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The exhibitions “Inventing Isabella” and “Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum both engage the audience in the many ways that art can change perception. Throughout history, art has been used to glorify, vilify, change, and create historical figures. Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) was an important pillar of the history of Boston, especially in the arts scene. Gardener was an art collector and philanthropist operating out of Boston with many international connections. 

The first exhibit being discussed highlights how Gardner was able to create a fabricated perception of herself through art and fashion. The second exhibit, a smaller and more difficult to find collection, is a series of self-portraits done by a Haitian artist, Fabiola Jean-Louis (b. 1978), exploring how art can create a sense of royalty and aristocracy. The themes of these exhibitions closely mirror one another, but the two accomplish the themes differently, creating unique atmospheres.

“Inventing Isabella” is in the Hostetter Gallery on the second level of the museum’s main building. At the entrance, there is an advertisement for both the exhibitions and directions to them. Entering the Hostetter Gallery, a video introduction plays, guiding visitors through the themes and highlighted pieces. After watching the video, the main entrance to the gallery is positioned to the left of the screen, and the first piece presented is John Singer Sargent’s “Isabella Stewart Gardner” (Fig. 1). This painting is an exemplar of the gallery, showing how Gardner and Sargent portray her image in this work. 

FIG. 1: “Isabella Stewart Gardner.” 1888 Oil on Canvas by John Singer Sargent. 190 x 80 cm.

Gardner is portrayed in this portrait as an icon of religious motifs and a contemporary woman of the Gilded Age. Sargent poses her in a simple, deep-cut black dress with three layers of pearls, her hands joined below her waist with a fabric background creating a circle behind her head. Sargent and Gardner were intentional with this piece, framing her as an individual with deep connections to culture and power. A clear motif is the halo that the fabric positions behind her head. In the portrait, Sargent paints the fabric, which is almost glowing. To the left of the painting, the fabric is displayed, and in reality, the fabric used (Fig. 2) does not have that luminescent quality. Sargent highlights the gold and circular patterns in the fabric to create the halo. No stranger to religious painting, Sargent has given Gardner a connection to the Madonna — perhaps to Sargent’s own piece “A Spanish Madonna” (Fig. 3) from around 1879. Less obvious is the connection Gardner creates by competing with a dramatic portrait by Sargent titled “Madame X.” 

Furnishing or Garment

FIG. 2: Furnishing or Garment
Fabric. 1475-1525. Silk and velvet with gilt yarn.

"A Spanish Madonna"

FIG. 3: “A Spanish Madonna.” C. 1879. Oil on Canvas. John Singer Sargent.

After drama surrounding the sensationalization of theportrait “Madame X,” Gardner sought out Sargent. This competition led her design to be simple, a callback to the scandal that was “Madame X.” Throughout the exhibition, this call to controversy and fame is seen. 

The portrait of Gardner is placed on a temporary wall that serves to obstruct the viewer from seeing deeper into the gallery. Instead the visitor is forced to focus on a raised circular stage where a singular coat from the House of Worth, a house of fashion in France at the time, is displayed.

This coat is meant to progress the viewer through the gallery, mirroring the dress that Gardner wears in the Sargent portrait. As the visitor moves around the dress, other parts of the gallery open and become clear. Two chairs with a table are available to sit at and observe prints of Gardner done by Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920). Zorn depicts Gardner in Renaissance regalia, connecting her to royalty. Gardner thought this connection was too much and she rejected these prints. After this section, the exhibit leads the viewer along the back wall, covered with newsprints and posters that reference Gardner with only selected professional photos. Gardner’s image was meticulously protected and crafted. Sargent paints Gardner again without a face, a watercolor that highlights the particularities she keeps with her image.

Passing by the dress at the center once more, the last section of the exhibition perfectly reflects the first section, a temporary wall with a portrait of Gardner. Zorn paints Gardner in a white dress in this 1894 portrait “Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice” (Fig. 4). Her white dress against a dark background causes her form to appear almost spiritual and otherworldly. Her expression is lively and animated, much different than the perfectly posed and regal image she crafts for herself. This concludes the exhibition in a narrative that describes Gardner’s attempt to portray herself in a specific serious, elegant, and kind manner.

"Isabella Stewart Gardner"

FIG. 4: “Isabella Stewart Gardner” in Venice 1894. Oil on Canvas. 91 x 66 cm. Anders Zorn.

In sisterhood with this exhibition is the second special exhibition, “Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History.” This exhibition is on the first floor of the Gardner house. I found this exhibition more difficult to find as it was not pointed out by visuals like the previous exhibition was. After questioning the aids at the museum, I was led back to “Inventing Isabella” and told it was the only special exhibition at the museum. Puzzled as to why no one could tell me about the exhibition that was advertised in promotional material, I wandered the museum for an additional twenty five minutes before stumbling on a small gallery that was being used as a waiting room, which held the exhibition.

The gallery, nestled in between the “blue room” and the “yellow room,” felt as though it were an afterthought to the museum. Ten pieces were displayed, but this room was filled with waiting guests eager to enter the other rooms of the museum. With no interaction to the pieces, the gallery felt cramped, yet empty. On the wall, a small excerpt describing the artist, Fabiola Jean-Louis, and her work accompanies three portraits that begin the exhibition. The three portraits are “Madame Leroy,” “Marie Antoinette is Dead,” and “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting” (Fig. 5). For this review, I will focus on the portrait “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting.” 

"Madame Beauvoir's Painting"

FIG. 5: “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting.” 2017.
Photograph. 83.8 x 66 cm. Fabiola Jean-Louis.

This piece and its interactions with the exhibit highlight the broader narrative Jean-Louis’ work creates. The exhibition is part of a larger project done by Jean-Louis as a narrative on race and gender throughout history. Jean-Louis aims to raise awareness of the lack of women of color in the historical canon despite their presence and their contributions. In addition, her work shows how fashion and status can seemingly elevate the Black body into positions of historied power, asking the audience if the power that historical figures have is a construct of the clothes they wear rather than a reflection of race or sex.

This question reflects the title of the project: “Rewriting History.” This exhibition works to confront the idea that history is written, fabricated, constructed, sculpted, and can be rewritten, refabricated, reconstructed, and resculpted. It is worth noting that Jean-Louis is not only a photographer — her background is also in sculpture. Most of the garments she adorns are sculptural pieces not meant to be worn but rather stiff, almost trapping their wearer. The viewer can see in these portraits, all of which reference aristocracy or intellectuals, Jean-Louis poses herself as stoic and unobstructed but also uncomfortable. 

In “Madame Beauvoir’s Painting,” we see the back of a painter, presumably by the title Madame Beauvoir, a reference to the 20th century philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.Jean-Louis depicts Beauvoir admiring a painting of a slave with a scarred and mutilated back, conjuring ideas and images of photographs of African American slaves’ scars after enduring abuse. Beauvoir is adorned in a gold and purple dress with rose patterns embroidered on the back. Her expression cannot be seen. Only a quarter of her face is in view, but she does not seem distressed. Rather her demeanor and stature show the morbid fascination associated with photographs like this, without a sense of fear. In portraying Beauvoir as a Black woman, Jean-Louis changes the historical narrative, instead discussing the shared struggle of Black people regardless of economic class. Jean-Louis mirrors the scarring on the back of the man in the photo with the inclusion of gold marks along the back of Beauvoir’s dress. This follows the narrative of the exhibition, describing the shared struggles of people of color and the idea that fashion can create the context to view the piece. Her scars are the slave’s scars, and, in that inclusion, history is rewritten to include the history of slaves as the history of the aristocracy.

These exhibitions work together to create a cohesive narrative of the ways fashion can be interpreted throughout history. That being said, there is irony in my experience at the museum. “Fabiola Jean-Louis: Rewriting History” felt like an afterthought, similar to the exhibition’s argument that people of color are an afterthought to history and white aristocracy. Guides, volunteers, and full staff members could not assist me in finding the gallery, some denying its existence. Meanwhile, “Inventing Isabella,” while more fleshed out and more in line with the museum’s history, was highlighted and easily found with help from many volunteers and guides despite the museum advertising them as equals. Both exhibits work well with one another and create a pleasant experience at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They are open until Jan. 15, 2024, and are worth checking out.

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