Isabella Stewart Gardner had a quirky phrase for art that caught her eye.
“A whacker,” confirmed Nathaniel Silver, curator of her museum's collection, with a laugh. “She uses this word a few times about extremely important, extremely expensive paintings.”
Titian's "Rape of Europa" was definitely one of those. Silver explained why this work has always been the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's crown jewel, and took us back to the time before its namesake landed this masterpiece in 1896.
“She's already thinking about a museum and what that might look like,” Silver said, “and she's certainly on the hunt for important European paintings – and above all, Italian.”
At the time well-heeled Bostonians were obsessed with all things Venice, and Titian was considered the most important Venetian Renaissance artist. In the mid-1500s he painted "Europa" at the height of his career.
“He had already become the painter to the city of Venice,” Silver said. “He had painted for sovereigns all over Europe as well as two popes. He was the leading painter of portraits and mythological scenes in Europe. He was the celebrity painter of that moment.”
King Philip II of Spain commissioned Titian to paint a series of six large-scale works inspired by the Roman poet Ovid's stories. For "Europa," the artist created a compelling, color-drenched image of a partially disrobed mortal princess who becomes an object of lust for the god Zeus.
When Gardner's art dealer Bernard Berenson wrote to tell her an earl in England was selling this Titian, she immediately said yes. The painting's price tag – which today would be the equivalent of nearly $4 million – set the record for old master paintings in America.
“She was willing to spend this gigantic sum at that time,” Silver said, “but since she was at the cutting-edge of bringing these kinds of paintings to the States, those prices would only go through the roof in the decade to come.”
125 years ago the ravishing masterpiece set out on its journey across the Atlantic. Gardner was anxious during the months it took for Europa to finally arrive in Boston. Then, Silver said, in late August, “it kind of slips into the city.”
Museum director Peggy Fogelman described how Gardner hung the more than 7-foot-tall framed painting in the living room of her Beacon Street home.
“She basically spends all night with it, looking at it,” Fogelman said, “you know, taking it all in.”
Gardner wrote a letter to Berenson telling him she was drinking herself drunk with her newly acquired Titian.
“And she talks about lusting after 'Europa,' ” Fogelman continued, “And so there is this undercurrent of passion, and almost carnal desire, for this painting.”
Gardner wasn't alone. Her friends also swooned, according to Silver. He said during their travels to Europe they fell at the feet of Titian's paintings. “And when they discover that she's got this one, and brought it to the United States, they're just completely awestruck.”
Author Henry James couldn't stop writing about it and dubbed Gardner “Daughter of Titian.” Europa cemented her reputation as a collector. She'd go on to bring in the country's first works by Italian Renaissance artists Botticelli and Raphael.
“So she's really at the forefront of bringing this taste to the United States,” Silver said.
Four years after acquiring the Titian painting, Gardner purchased a piece of land in the Fenway to build an ornate museum inspired by Venetian architecture. She created a special room in her palazzo for Europa.
“If you have a building inspired by Venice, it has to have a heart of Titian inside,” Silver said. “This is what creates the spiritual heart of the building.”
And there Europa stayed until early 2020. That's when Gardner's gem embarked on its first journey away from the museum since it opened in 1903. And what a time to take an international trip.
“Of any painting that could have been out of the museum during the pandemic, why this one?” Amanda Venezia recalled asking herself as the global art shipping industry screeched to a halt. She's the museum's head registrar and has been in charge of orchestrating the painting's complicated voyage from Boston to London's National Gallery, then to the Prado in Spain, and again back home.
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The exhibition tour brought Gardner's Titian together with its five companion works for an unprecedented reunion after four centuries apart. Now they're all at the Gardner Museum.
“It's like bringing a bunch of kings and queens back from their journey, the logistics involved,” Venezia said. She's clearly relieved "Europa" is again within the museum's walls.
“We treat every work of art with the same policy and procedure,” Venezia went on, “but this is, without a doubt, one of the most high profile, most important and also most stressful pieces to have been out of the museum during this time.”
In the Gardner's new exhibition gallery staff members fawned over the returned artwork. With its newly constructed frame and glass, the piece weighs upwards of 400 pounds.
Chief paintings and research conservator Gianfranco Pocobene cleaned and restored Europa in preparation for its travels. He said it hadn't undergone significant treatment since Mrs. Gardner installed the painting in her museum.
He described replacing "Europa's" wooden structure that supports the canvas because it was damaged and worm-eaten. He also removed decades-old varnish to reveal the full glory of Titian's pigments and brushstrokes. While retouching the painting Pocobene said he got lost in the artist's revolutionary technique.
“We look at it now and there's this kind of sketchy brushwork and dabs of paint,” he pointed out. “And it looks very modern. But at that time it was just over-the-top. Nobody was doing this.”
Silver explained how "Europa" spent centuries in large, drafty rooms in Spain, France and England. When Gardner purchased "Europa" centuries of grit had built up on the painting's surface.
“I think she'd be astonished to see it like this today,” the curator said, “just how brilliant it looks in color and tone and drama.”
All six of the huge, mythological paintings now in Boston have been spruced up for their momentous gathering. The Gardner's exhibition, “Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” is their only stop in the U.S.
Peggy Fogelman said Isabella Stewart Gardner likely never dreamed Europa would be hanging on the walls of her museum with its sibling works after more than 400 years apart. And the director added she doesn't anticipated them reuniting again anytime soon.
“So it really is a chance to see them in a context that they were intended to be in,” she said, “but probably won't repeat itself in our lifetimes.”
“Titian: Women, Myth & Power” is on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum until January 2, 2022.
This segment aired on August 12, 2021.