BOSTON — "All of Boston is divided into two parts, one of which follows science and the other, Mrs. Jack Gardner," a local pundit quipped presciently in 1875, years before Isabella Stewart Gardner was to build the palazzo-museum that would make her legendary here.

A new exhibition, "The Making of the Museum," which opened Tuesday (Apr. 22) and runs through Aug. 21, explores how she built the collection and the museum while illuminating the mystery and innuendo cloaking Gardner’s life. For the first time, her travel diaries, photographs and sketches — as well as never-exhibited sketches by John Singer Sargent, who was one of her intimates — will be shown as part of the museum’s centennial celebration. Included are Gardner’s ecstatic notations about key works, particularly Titian’s Europa. "I am breathless about the ‘Europa’!" she writes. "Every inch of paint in the picture seems full of joy."

Months of rummaging in archives, however, have not turned up her thoughts on the Vermeer — beyond a note of its purchase on a day packed with social engagements. A rarity in the art-world, the Vermeer is one of only 35 known works by the Dutch master and was stolen in a 1990 heist and never found, along with Rembrandt’s only known seascape.

"The Vermeer has become a cult painting," says Alan Chong, the show’s curator. "It was the first real painting she bought, paying serious money. And it was before she was getting much official guidance, so we can assume she was acting on her own instinct."

Gardner’s instincts have caused much speculation, since later in life, she ordered friends to destroy correspondence and had her papers and family bible burned.

"We’re connecting the dots by looking at what was said about her behind her back," Chong says.

Gardner saved virtually every article printed about her — accurate or not —and the show includes those speculating on the "weird" activities at Fenway Court, as the museum was called.After her husband died, Gardner’s circle consisted of "handsome young men, some talented but others just pretty," as Chong puts it, including James MacNeil Whistler, Henry James and Marion Crawford, a political novelistrumored to be her lover, and Sargent, who painted three portraits of her. Her husband decreed that one, which pays careful attention to her hourglass figure, should not be publicly shown at Fenway Court, but Gardner managed to hang it so that visitors could catch glimpses of it from other rooms.Her aesthetic preoccupations and hunger for the exotic shaped her travel diaries — the photos she snapped while traveling to China, Japan and through Cambodia to see the jungle temples of Angkor Wat. In Egypt, she describes breaking away from the carriages to lie in the sands and contemplate the sphinx.

"She went through constant makeovers," says Chong. "She cultivated myths about herself."

And pinning "Mrs. Jack" down is still difficult. Mere days before the exhibition is to open, Chong is tiptoeing among photographs and papers laid on the gallery floor with co-curator Richard Linger, discussing how to properly present her life’s work.

"The more I dig into the details, the more mysterious she becomes," Chong says, "the more contradictions emerge."

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