Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Boston, Massachusetts

Europa (1554-1562)


Titian did six poesies, meaning love poems based on divine love from Greek mythology and Roman sources. He relied on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The paintings were for Philip II of Spain.

Aretino persuaded Titian to court Philip as a patron. He was, after all, head of the world’s largest empire in the 16th century.

This story has Jupiter cruising in the sky, he sees a lovely Phoenician princes, Europa by name, near a herd of cows. Down he goes, changes clothes and becomes a bull. Europa was picking flowers, went over to the bull, and yes she stroked him and mounted him. Seems logical. At which point Jupiter the bull zooms off and reaches Crete. There he satisfies his lust and gives rise to Europe. From the union Minos will be born and the most ancient of European civilizations on the island of Crete. Her brother Cadmus, the inventor of writing, will search for her and found the city of Thebes. This is the birth of civilization.

Well it is a myth.

Ovid’s tale paints the bull’s nature as calm, stating “his forehead was not lowered for attack nor was there fury in his open eyes”. Orvid also on the expression on the bull’s face said it was one of “love and peace”.

There is an argument by some that this painting eroticizes rape. It is posed that Europa’s facial expression is sexually explicit and bears “a look of ecstacy”.

The title of the work was originally Europa and ‘Rape’ was not added until 50 years after Titian’s death. Rape or ratto at the time of the painting meant abduction, to seize it or take away by force.

Europa did not in the myth fight the bull to stay with her father. While fearful she did not resist.

The painting itself — how to appraise it in light some of the arguments?

It is a bit hard to see the detail of the pink sky and fish below. I’m relieved to see that it’s not clear at all that Europa is enjoying this ride! She’s holding on to Jupiter’s horn, or she’d slide down to the serpents below. She is gloriously plump as ideal women were in those days. The cupid’s chunky – no dieting here.

The bull’s eye is, I must agree, engrossing — if a bull’s eye is to have a personality then here’s one for you, perhaps only a muley eyed bull, or is it an eye looking forward, “this is going to be fun … woweeeee!”

What do I feel seeing this? Hard to put into words. The bull is improbably gorgeous. Europa’s legs, breast and throat part of a lush symphony. A writhing crimson scarf ties into the soft pink sky reflecting on the cherubs. As if painting by Tschaikovsky.

The Gardner was robbed on the early morning of March 18, 1990 by two men pretending to be policemen. They tied up the only two attendants, art students, and took six pictures in about 81 minutes. One glorious Vermeer – and he only had 42 in his total output – and a Rembrandt. But in the very next room this painting which they missed.

Jupiter’s (later Zeus) sexual conquests are beyond counting. A litany of exotic names, Leda, Danae, Callesto, Aphrodite, Demeter were the recipients of Jupiter’s lust.

El Jaleo (1882)
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

El Jaleo

Isabella Gardner was the ultimate character. A woman who when exposed to Venice, Paris and Europe, just devoured it. Her husband was wealthy. She had a refreshing ability to study all cultures. She had energy with a capital “E”. She had Bernard Berenson the great artistic guru and acquirer scout Europe for artifacts. She supervised the building of the Gardner Museum herself, following it brick by brick.

She stood over stonemasons, plasterers, carpenters and created an internal courtyard touched with Tiepelo pink. She bought all the arches, pillars, railings, columns, sculptures and applied them to the walls and filled the courtyard. All her own scheme.

She would stand over the masons plastering walls, ordering this or ordering that. It worked due to her energy and sense of perfection.

This is an eccentric collection but how lucky Boston is to have it. She was friends of the mighty, the cultural titans and the Boston Red Sox.

She coveted Sergent’s painting, El Jaleo, the ruckus.

This painting, done in 1882, painted after Bizet’s Carmen of 1875, with its proud gypsy torn between an army officer and toreador. It was exhibited in 1882 with the title Dance of the Gypsies.

The setting of this obsessed Isabella Gardner. She set the painting behind a Moorish arch so you see it as a performance on a lighted stage, a theatre in effect. She placed a mirror to the left, slightly angled but repeating the image. It is difficult to describe what this mirror does with the image. I think it creates a sense of motion, lightens the picture and accentuates three dimension. The frame is perhaps narrower on the bottom than the top. It appears that way and yet you’re not sure. You sit on an ancient stone ledge before blue tiles behind Mexican wall tile and your eye runs to the cement under the painting, the identical colour of the floor at the bottom of the painting.

Sargent was theatre. This is the ultimate stage theatre. A gypsy in an Andalusian tavern outside of Seville in full stomp. Her white gown, so unexpected, so eye-catching, so oddly formal, frames the staccato of the feet. The arch of her left forearm, the sexual authority of the pointed wrist and finger, the shadow billowing up from her black lacy blouse, the full throat of number 5 accompanied from the left – leaning back hhheeyyyaahh – you’re there.

You sit in a hall of sarcophagi, medieval statues from Bordeaux, capitols from France, blue tiles before you – what a setting!

My guess is that this is the best marriage of architecture and a painting in America along with the Van der Weyden in Philadelphia which I describe in that chapter.

A Seated Scribe (1479-1480)
Gentile Bellini (1429-1507)

A Seated Scribe
Sometimes you stumble upon a little painting which enthrals, just enthrals — often a fluke, a curious reaction but nevertheless a passion erupts.

Such is this, a pen and ink drawing (18 cm x 14 cm) in type of heavy watercolour (known as gouache). A seated scribe attributed to Gentile Bellini. There is a controversy as to who the artist is and some authorities suggest that Costanzo da Ferrara from Naples is the artist. I’ve looked at Costanzo’s stuff and this is nonsense. Besides, Gentile Bellini is so romantic that it must be him, just must be, trust me on this.

Here is a young member of the Ottoman Court of Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481). He wears a navy caftan woven with gold, bright silks on his arms and neck (a striking mauve or light eggplant collar) and in the meringue folds of his turban, a ribbed red taj – the head gear worn during Mehmed’s reign. There is even a touch of peach fuzz on his upper lip.

Gentile Bellini was from a family of Venetian painters. His father, Jacopo, was famous for his use of oil paint. His brother, Giovanni, did the portrait of Doge Loredan (London National Gallery), one of the greatest portraits of all time.

Much of Gentile’s works were large canvases in buildings which later burned.

In 1479 he was considered the most prestigious painter in Venice.

Warfare between Venice and the Ottoman Empire stopped in 1479 and Venice negotiated a peace treaty with Sultan Mehmed II of Constantinople. To cultivate good cultural relations, Bellini was sent as an emissary of Venice to Constantinople for 18 months. Mehmed wanted his portrait painted, an odd ambition for a Turk in 1480. There is a portrait of him perhaps by Bellini. This cultural thawing didn’t last beyond Mehmed. His successor considered representations of the human figure to be un-Islamic.

I love the gentleness of this, the delicacy of line, the ornate carpet of a caftan, the meringue of the turban, the crinkles of the magenta sleeves, the faraway look of the sitter, the exotic flimmer of it all. It lifts a parchment image from a golden manuscript and creates a whispered image. Look at the scrolls of material at his back seat — it is a blue print for Frank Gehry’s architecture!

Think of this, 1480 is the time. Look at the caftan, gold patches, white grey designs, a ghostly image. This is 190 years before Vermeer and his patterns of rugs, thicker and more patchy. 190 years!

The sleeves remind me of Rembrandt’s caramel sleeves in his Jewish Bride in the Rijksmuseum.

Bellini was successful in Constantinople, partially due to his ability to draw patterns and line, so important to the eastern mind.

There is a good novel. The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin of a Constantinople eunuch and detective being sent to Venice in 1840 to recover the vanished portrait of Mehmed.

The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple (1320?)
Giotto (1267-1337)

The Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple

How rare to be able to sit on a chair right next to a small Giotto, done, say in 1320. I’ve never been able to do this except in this eccentric Gardner mansion elegant curio setting. There it is, 18” x 12”, all gold backdrop on a small side table.

Giotto propelled western art beyond gold stylized figures, more ornaments than people. With Giotto the human figure developed a solidity and a personality.

Here it is, all at once, a little squiggly Christ pulling Simeon’s beard (see Luke 2:27-38, a devout man yearning for a saviour of Israel) yet straining with a child’s telltale reach to mother. Anna, a prophetess on the right, old, haggard, grey of face, accentuated by a green yellow gown – the pain of age. Behind the Virgin Mother is Joseph eyeing it all with intensity and focus, the carpenter’s eye,

And in the middle of the altar a hanging vestment, all white, a patterned abstract, taking up a large space. This the most modern abstract painting possible, lines, tiny squares and white. Not far from this to Rothko.
Quite a giggle to be so snug with the beginning of the Renaissance.

This would have been part of a larger altar piece.

I have a bit of a niggle. Giotto’s Padua Scrovigni Chapel masterpiece was done around 1305 and is full of chunky, more solid personalities — sculpture translated into colour — than this little piece. Although Giotto’s Hell in Padua has a lot of skinny, wicked victims waiting to be gobbled up or strung up.

Giotto was shrewd with money. He was not a pretty man and he had 8 children. When Dante first saw the children’s faces he said, “My friend you make such handsome figures for others – why do you make such plain ones for yourself?” to which Giotto responded, “I paint by day but I procreate at night in the dark.”

HerculesHercules (1470)
Piero Della Francesca (1415-1492)

There is one impressive oddity in the collection. There is the only fresco of Piero Della Francesca in America.

It is of Hercules holding his club with a slim scarf hugging his genitals. He looks goofy, just goofy. To his credit Piero’s descendants cut the fresco off below the knees to make space for a doorway which doesn’t help Hercules’ gravitas.

Stained Glass Window: Scenes from the Lives of Saint Nicasius and Saint Eutropia (circa 1205)
Soissons, France

Stained Glass
The third floor has a corridor leading to a blue stained glass window from Soissons, France, which is blue, blue, blue, set against mustard gold and fronting a mellow red backdrop.

All this next to a choir stall, here the monks would nod off before the story in the glass. The story with figures too complicated and arcane to dither over — it’s the vibrancy of the blue — from 1205!