"How much do you want a Botticelli?" The question was sent to Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston in a letter posted by Bernard Berenson on August 1, 1894, from London. Berenson, thirty-one, had, with the publication of the groundbreaking Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, recently established himself as an expert on Italian art. Four months before, he had sent Gardner a copy of his book, and earlier that summer, when she was in Paris, he urged her not to miss an exhibition of English pictures.
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Soon after, Isabella Gardner asked Berenson his opinion of several Italian Old Master pictures proposed to her by dealers in France. Berenson replied that the paintings were not what these dealers claimed and offered her the Botticelli instead. "Lord Ashburnham has a great one—one of the greatest: a Death of Lucretia," he wrote. But, he "is not keen about selling it." Yet, Berenson thought that "a handsome offer would not insult him."
Berenson also named a price: "about £3,000," or some $15,000. He added, "If you cared about it, I could, I dare say, help you in getting the best terms."
Isabella Stewart Gardner had made her first major purchase of an Old Master painting two years before, on December 5, 1892, at the Paris auction of the collection of the late Théophile Thoré. The day before the sale, an artist friend had accompanied her to peruse Thoré's art, and there she saw the three Vermeers that were to be auctioned. To bid for her, Gardner hired Fernand Robert, a Paris antiques dealer. At the time, auctions generally operated as a wholesale market, where dealers acquired stock. If they knew that a collector wanted a particular work of art in a sale, they would try to buy it in hopes of selling it to the collector immediately afterward.
The first Vermeer in the Thoré auction, A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, went to a Paris dealer, Stephen Bourgeois, for 29,000 francs. Bidding for the second, The Concert, again climbed to 29,000 francs, and Fernand Robert won the picture.
"Mrs. G. bought the van der Meer picture for fr. 29, 000," John Lowell "Jack" Gardner, Isabella's husband, noted matter-of-factly in his diary.
No doubt The Concert struck Isabella Gardner because of its understated, well-plotted beauty. The small picture was a Dutch interior where two young women, one in a glimmering white skirt seated at a harpsichord, and a young man in a brown jacket with a lute, are performing a piece of music on the far side of a room, across a floor patterned with black- and- white squares. On the wall behind them hang two large Dutch Old Masters in black frames. In the complex interlocking of colors and shapes made from the musicians, the instruments, the fabrics, the paintings, and the furniture, some in shadow and others in light, Vermeer captured the fleeting enchantment of the music, translating the elusive spell of one art form into another. Gardner's new acquisition was the first Vermeer to reach Boston and the second in the United States. With a commission, the canvas cost Gardner 31,175 francs, or just over $6,000. Although Henry Marquand had paid only $800 for his Vermeer five years before, Gardner's purchase soon looked like a bargain.
In August a friend reported that a Dutch art expert "says your concert is now worth easily between 150 and 200 thousand [francs]!" Indeed, soon after, Stephen Bourgeois turned around and sold his Young Woman Standing at a Virginal to the National Gallery in London for 50,000 francs, or $10,000. Prices of Old Master pictures were rising.
Still, in the mid-1890s, the number of Americans buying Old Masters remained small. Gardner's purchase at a Paris auction showed her independence of mind and her ambitions as a collector—and that she had her ear to the ground among progressive artists in London and Paris. In proposing the rare Botticelli to Gardner, Berenson knew well she was likely to leap at the chance to acquire it. She had definite, individual taste, with particular likes and dislikes. She had spent several summers in Venice and was drawn to the art of the Italian Renaissance. Rembrandt was the favorite artist of America's tycoons, but not hers. "You know, or rather, you don't know, that I adore Giotto," she wrote Berenson in 1900, "and really don't adore Rembrandt. I only like him." He shared her pioneering taste for Italian art and sympathized: "I am not anxious to have you own braces of Rembrandts, like any vulgar millionaire," he wrote. A devout Anglican, Gardner had no problem with religious imagery. The same summer she won the Vermeer, she had also purchased a Spanish Madonna and a Florentine Virgin and
Child. Soon she spelled out her wish to buy Italian pictures, claiming that a Filippino Lippi and a Tintoretto (along with "a Velasquez [sic] very good") were her "foremost desire always." She added: "Only very good need apply!" Unlike Marquand, Gardner was buying for herself, her own plea sure, and her Beacon Hill house, where she hung both new and old paintings and propped the extras on chairs. Like Marquand and even more emphatically than him, she insisted upon masterpieces.
When Berenson proposed the Botticelli, Isabella Stewart Gardner was fifty- six, slim, and elegant. She directed her life with a theatrical sense of style. She had pale skin, dark hair, an oval face with almond- shaped eyes, a long straight nose, and a full, awkward mouth, which, like her eyes, curved slightly down and suggested the seriousness that, for all her flamboyance, was at the core of her personality. She had a long neck and an erect carriage. She wore well-cut clothes (many designed by Charles Worth and imported from Paris), which spoke to her love of textiles but also to her creativity and skill in shaping her own image. In a black- and white photograph, she stares out with a mix of wisdom and innocence, her willowy figure clad in a fitted dress of dark watered satin with a high collar, long sleeves, and buttons running straight down its front. In summer, she wore large- brimmed hats festooned with veils that she tied down around her neck. Perhaps increasingly self- conscious about her face, she covered it as she aged. In her sixties, she would maintain her narrow form, holding her neck straight and her head high.