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Isabella Stewart Gardner's unsettling photographs from 19th Century New Mexico

By Medicine Man Gallery on

Click to read more Essential West

What do your travels say about you? What about your travel albums?

Remember those?

Physical scrap books produced following trips in the days before everyone possessed hundreds of photos of even the most mundane experiences on their phones.

Both reveal a great deal about Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924), namesake of the Boston art museum converted from her one-time mansion.

The simple legacy is what her travels tell us.

Between 1867 and 1895, Gardner and her husband traveled the world extensively. Both were born into fabulous wealth and privilege. Though this status enabled them to freely cross countries and continents, the couple ventured beyond the typical destinations of their fellow Gilded Age travelers, visiting 39 counties throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas.

Even by modern standards, these travels would be expensive, exhaustive and exhilarating. Undertaken in the late 19th century–by a woman no less–demonstrates Gardner’s spirit of adventure and boldness, along with her fortune and being unburned by the responsibilities of job or children.

Traversing continents by boat, rail and foot, Gardner documented her journeys in albums with purchased photographs, maps, menus, botanical samples and miniature watercolors made by her and her artist friends.

The albums complicate Gardner’s legacy plainly exposing her as an individual manifestation of settler colonialism, using her wealth to tromp around the world wherever she pleased, objectifying, exoticizing and othering the “locals” she encountered along the way, more objects of curiosity than fellow human beings. An air of superiority is impossible to overlook in her cataloguing the people of India, Japan, China, Mexico and the American Southwest, the people who don’t look like her.

Attitudes not uncommon in her day – not uncommon today. More, however, is expected of Gardner, a trailblazer who made history as the first woman to found a museum in the United States. 

An exhibition at the Gardner Museum and a new book pull no punches in presenting Gardner’s travels as both remarkable and problematic.

“Fellow Wanderer: Isabella’s Travel Albums,” on view through May 21, 2023, showcases pages from nine of Gardner’s rarely-seen albums – many with annotations in her hand. These collaged repositories are exceptional archives of her travel itineraries and insight into her deep interest in art, architecture, religion and plants from around the globe.

“Fellow Wanderer: Isabella Stewart Gardner's Travel Albums,” a glorious, large-scale, coffee table book available to the public April 4, 2023, brings together nearly thirty of Gardner’s striking travelogues offering invaluable perspective on the global influences on this legendary collector and patron of the arts.

The book features beautiful facsimiles of Gardner’s travel albums—largely unpublished until now—along with essays by leading scholars who place these diaries and sketchbooks within the context of the art and culture of Europe, the Middle East and Asia in the nineteenth century.

And the Pueblos of what is today New Mexico.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924, United States), Travel Album: India, Pakistan, Yemen, and Egypt, Volume VI, page 38, 1884. Bound album including collected photographs, found papers, pressed botanicals, and pen and ink annotations. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924, United States), Travel Album: India, Pakistan, Yemen, and Egypt, Volume VI, page 38, 1884.

Bound album including collected photographs, found papers, pressed botanicals, and pen and ink annotations. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Isabella Stewart Gardner in New Mexico

Gardner traveled to present-day New Mexico on a mighty train trip in 1881. The United States annexed the area in 1846, but statehood would not come until 1912.

She journeyed along the Atchison Topeka Santa Fe Railroad across what would become Kansas, southern Wyoming, through Nevada to San Francisco. The route took her south down California’s Central Valley to Los Angeles, to Yuma, Arizona on the Mexican border, across the Sonoran Desert through Tucson all the way to El Paso and then up to Santa Fe, through southeastern Colorado, and back east again by way of southern Kansas.

Hell of a trip. Imagine it. 1881.

The gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone took place that same year, a few months later and just miles from the track Gardner travelled.

Geronimo and his Apache wouldn’t surrender to U.S. forces until 1886 along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

Gardner traveled the length of New Mexico from top to bottom. Her travel albums show photos from Santa Fe and Kewa Pueblo, then known as Santo Domingo Pueblo.

“What we see clearly in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s travel albums is a lack of inquiry,” writer and curator Jaclyn M. Roessel (Diné) states in an essay featured in the “Fellow Wanderer” book. She was born and raised on the Diné Reservation which spans Arizona and New Mexico. “We see the arrangement of the pages and some script identifying place, but nothing regarding interactions, names, or personal thoughts. There is no indication, as far as we can tell, that care was extended when these images were taken.”

Gardner’s photos mimic popular tropes of Pueblo people – they may have contributed to creating them.

Women balancing pots on their heads. A baby in a cradleboard. The subjects are objects, treated with all the sensitivity of a museum mannequin on display.

She does not similarly depict residents encountered in her beloved Italy and Spain.

Native people remained fixed this way in the minds of many white Americans. Still do to some. Here is where historic Indigenous antagonism to photography, long inaccurately parodied as a “fear” of cameras, reveals itself.

“Photography’s power to hold the Indigenous person in a time capsule is the great paradox of documenting the Southwest,” Roessel continues in the book. “The power and responsibility of photography have been misused and misguided. It is an art form that in the case of Native people has created a dimension of distinct othering in settler colonial hands.”

Most troubling is a photo of two men bound at the wrists and ankles, hooded, hanging by their necks with Gardner’s hand-written caption below: “San Antonio Justice.” That’s San Antonio, NM.

In hindsight, we can recognize that capital punishment as practiced in the United States, particularly on the frontier in the 19th century, had little to do with “justice.” Posses, mob rule, racism, vengeance, sure, justice, rarely.

Whatever context Gardner intended “justice” to have–ironic, humorous, sincere–it badly fails a contemporary reading.

Placing the photo as one of four on a page in the travel journal shared with the Pueblo baby and two women undertaking domestic chores represents a ghastly inhumanity.

“What I think the images collected by Gardner lack is an awareness of what it means to be in right relationship with a place, a people, and a culture,” Roessel writes. “To affix images of death next to images of cultural continuation and cultural struggle signals a lack of understanding about place.”

Placing a “United States of America” stamp on these pages, as she did for every country she visited, further feels like an insult to the Native people captured by her camera. These remain Native lands today and in 1881, they were American in name only.

Replicating her colonial background and upbringing, Gardner wants to possess this land, possess these people, in the name of her country. The stamp and photos give her the authority to do so.

I had the good fortune of visiting the magnificent Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum one time. I do not recall seeing any Southwestern art objects there among the collection which was directly informed from her travels. It is possible I overlooked them, but her travel albums reveal a lack of respect and esteem for the people there.

Bravo to the editors and writers in the book for calling these attitudes out and the trustees of the Museum and her estate for allowing such a candid and unflattering presentation of her to be published. “Fellow Wanderer,” frankly, describes her views and images as “outdated,” “offensive, racist, colonialist.”

These traits are not limited to her travels in the Southwest. The book emphasizes numerous unsettling questions about her journeys in Asia, particularly Cambodia.

See for yourself. Read for yourself. Decide for yourself what Isabella Stewart Gardner’s travels and travel albums say about her.

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