canvas and the pound of flesh

The rape of Europa by Titian is probably the most celebrated painting in the collection of Old Masters assembled by Isabella Stewart Gardner at the turn of the last century. It hangs, all 70×80 inches of it, in a heavy gold frame in the Titian Room in her unique museum at Fenway Court. it represents the Greek myth in which Europa is carried off by Zeus in the disguise of a bull to become the mother of his children.

Isabella was a genuine art lover who risked her very very old money husband’s ire when she stretched the budget to acquire Titian’s erotic “The Rape of Europa” from a British aristocrat, for the then unheard of price of $100,000 which in effect started the modern art market of escalating values. Of course Bernard Berenson was there, taking his “cut” his pound of flesh like the Merchant of Venice, throwing away any idealistic hope of purity confirming the repressed and stereotypical character of the anti-semitized Jew he so wanted to escape.

( see link at end) : Saltzman: I discovered things about Isabella Gardner’s relationship with the connoisseur Bernard Berenson. In looking at the purchase of Titian’s Europa, I found that Berenson, who had already written a book on Venetian painting when he proposed it to Gardner, had never seen the picture, which was in an English collection. In fact, Otto Gutekunst, who worked at Colnaghi in London, had found it and told Berenson about it. Berenson pretended he himself had tracked down most of the pictures he proposed to Gardner, when in fact he got them through Gutekunst. In all his letters to Gardner, Berenson never mentions Gutekunst’s name. By looking at lots of transactions, I realized that Gutekunst wasn’t simply a broker, but played at least as important a role as Berenson in selecting pictures for Gardner and shaping Gardner’s collection. The dealer’s brilliance as a connoisseur is proved by the way Berenson relied completely upon his judgment. Gutekunst was an expert in Dutch art, and thanks to him, Gardner, who much preferred Italian painting, bought several magnificent Rembrandts. Sadly two of these great Rembrandts—some of the very first Rembrandts ever to come to the United States—are among the paintings stolen from the Gardner fifteen years ago and still not recovered.

Berenson and Gutekunst were a brilliant team of Old Master buyers. They were the same age, both expatriates and both energetic and charming. Gutekunst is one of the few people who sizes up Berenson for what he is and tells him. Because of Berenson’s dishonesty, their relationship couldn’t last. To compensate Berenson for his advice, Gardner had agreed to pay a 5% commission on everything she bought. It has been known that Colnaghi was also paying commissions to Berenson, commissions hidden from Gardner in the prices she paid. The commission to Colnaghi has been viewed as a necessary cost of doing business, which Gardner should have been willing to pay. But, the purchase of Titian’s Europa revealed that Berenson cheated not only Gardner, but also Gutekunst. He got a high price out of her and then told Gutekunst he had received much less, and pocketed the difference. Read More:

---Painted for Phillip II, King of Spain, this mythological painting portrays the abduction of Europa by Jupiter, who dupes Europa with his disguise as a bull. Rape of Europa is a study of contrasts: Europa is a reclining nude both submissive and resistant, both abandoned with desire and frightened, beneath a sky of opposites, both calm blue sky and with threatening storms. The putti, or Cupids, in the sky and atop the dolphin are mesmerized watching the tension between the lovers; the nymphs, vague on the distant shore, watch and wave helplessly. Europa's generous, billowing flesh and Jupiter's tail seem to quiver with excitement at the pending sexual act. This famous artwork lives at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where I've had the pleasure of its frequent company. With each visit, I'm reminded that the bull's eye - which Titian painted as inescapably leering, impossible to avoid - is the most intensely painted eye in Western art, human or animal.---Read More:


Her husband was a successful businessman, and her father left her an inheritance. With money to burn, Gardner began making forays to Europe in the 1880s to “acquire the best.” Her haul included 290 paintings, 280 pieces of sculpture, 460 pieces of furniture and much, much more. It is fitting that the centerpiece of her collection was Rape of Europa, because Gardner had her way with the Continent in much the same way that thieves would one day have their way with her collection. Read More:
Had he done nothing more, by one action art historian Bernard Berenson secured the fame of the Gardners as collectors. In 1896, he facilitated the purchase of Titian’s magnificent Rape of Europa, one of the most sublime masterpieces of all time. It was one of a group of paintings showing romances of the gods that Titian painted for Philip II of Spain in the mid-16th-Century. In Metamorphoses Ovid describes the same scene of Jupiter abducting Europa, which the superlative High Renaissance Venetian master depicts with such shimmering lusciousness. Who doesn’t recognize that look of utter innocence in the bull’s eyes? ‘Please trust me’, he seems to say, ‘I would never hurt you.’ The silver-shot pale-green brocade hung below the picture was salvaged from a favorite gown of Mrs. Gardner’s made by Charles Worth. Read More:
His first big client was Isabella Stewart Gardner, for whom he secured most of the major paintings still at Fenway Court. He came groveling after her like a heat-homing missile. “Whatever comes, I shall always worship you without exception as the most life-enhancing, the most utterly enviable person I have ever had the good fortune to know,” he wrote to her in 1898, when she seemed to be going cold on further buying. And again, “You are really the most lovable person on earth, sunshine become flesh and blood. I know not how to describe you, but a miracle certainly, a goddess and I, your prophet.” When “Mrs. Jack” bought the Darnley Titian through Berenson, the Rape of Europa, its then astonishing price of $100,000 set a new plateau for Renaissance paintings, and caused almost as great a sensation as the $2 million paid for Pollock’s Blue Poles in 1973. From then on, Americans would pay ever increasing prices for Italian art, and the one person who could guarantee the integrity of their investments was Berenson.Read More:

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