Isabelle Stuart Gardner’s palace of paintings….
Perhaps the most astonishing single aspect of Fenway Court today is the disparity between its present value and what it cost Mrs. Gardner. Morris Carter, her biographer said, said that what she paid was a minor consideration; she bought what she wanted, when she wanted, when she wanted and forgot what it cost. Despite this, she got an eye popping series of bargains. Fenway Court and its collections cost her about $3,000,000, most of which she inherited from her father. Just the thirteen pieces stolen 1n 1990 including a Vermeer and Rembrandt could be valued at at least forty times that today. She got her money’s worth for many reasons, one of which was her professed desire not to trust expert opinion, and she had no use for pedantry; relying very much on her own research, a kind of non expert, expert informed by intuition and her own judgement.
And she had superb advice, not only from a young Bernard Berenson but from John Singer Sargent, at whose suggestion she bought Tintoretto’s Lady in Black from Prince Chigi’s collection in Rome and Whistler, as well as choice gifts from friends like Charles Eliot Norton and Thomas Whittemore. Isabella or Belle as she was called, once grandly explained that she could no longer afford second-rate pictures because she needed all her money for first-rate. If she was apparently unaware of such distinguished contemporaries as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, it is to her credit, or perhaps to Sargent’s that she ignored such fashionable painters as Bouguereau and the Barbizon school.
Judged by comparison with the purchases of other pioneer American collectors of roughly the same vintage, such as W.W. Corcoran and Henry Walters,Mrs. Gardner’s treasures stand up remarkably well. Francis Henry Taylor estimated that Walters and his son Henry spent $40 million on their gallery in Baltimore, yet a long list of paintings they purchased as works of Moro, Goya, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Gainsborough and Constable were all subsequently downgraded to “school of” pictures, depite the “expert” opinion these purchases were based on.
Belle seems to have known exactly what she wanted. Sir Joseph Duveen, who later extracted hallucinating prices from Frick, Mellon and Kress for old masters, sold her only one picture: a portrait of A Woman in Green and Crimson. She bought it as an Antonio Pollaiuolo in 1907 through Berenson, but it later turned out to be the work of that artist’s less well known brother Piero. Berenson at that time was not yet a dean of art critics, but a perceptive young man in his thirties, and he made an occasional mistake.
The Velazquez Pope Innocent X which he and Mrs. gardner agreed was a “whacker” is now an “attributed to” status. In 1899 she bought at Berenson’s suggestion what was thought to be the only existing portrait of Michelangelo, by Sebastiano del Piombo. When it was cleaned a few years later it was found to be a self-portrait by Baccio Bandinelli, a rival sculptor. Another disputed picture is Young Lady of Fashion, a girl with a ponytail hairdo, now attributed to Paolo Uccello, but which Berenson insists is the work of Domenico Veneziano. But the overwhelming majority of original attributions is still generally accepted.