In March 1894, Isabella Stewart Gardner received a copy of her friend and art dealer Bernard Berenson's new book, The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance. Their friendship stretched back to the late 1880s, when he was a student at Harvard, and she helped fund his first trip to Europe, where he established himself as an art historian.
The topic of Gardner and Berenson’s correspondence soon turned to art. “How much do you want a Botticelli?” he wrote. “Lord Ashburnham has a great one—one of the greatest: a Death of Lucretia… I understand that, although the noble lord is not keen about selling it, a handsome offer would not insult him. I should think it would have to be about £3,000.”
The Fifth Earl
To say that Lord Ashburnham was "not keen on selling it" was misleading. The young earl was actively in the process of selling off his family's collection of artworks and precious manuscripts, including the Story of Lucretia.
A Bluechip Name
Botticelli was a bluechip name highly valued by collectors in Europe, but not one of his paintings had yet reached the United States. As if that was not incentive enough, Lucretia was a masterpiece, depicting the story of the ancient Roman heroine whose death led to the foundation of the Roman Republic.
The story of a powerful woman may well have appealed to Isabella. But the opportunity to acquire a large, well-preserved, and relatively unknown Botticelli must have been impossible to turn down. Berenson had skillfully tapped into Gardner's tastes, competitive spirit, and passion for quality.
At £3,400, the Botticelli ultimately cost more than Berenson had originally suggested. This was a lot of money, more than three times the average price of a home in the United States. But she could not resist. In the end, Gardner paid £3,200 for the painting, plus an additional commission of £200 to Berenson. Lord Ashburnham received £2,500 (minus a £50 commission to the art dealer Colnaghi, who had secured the picture for Berenson). Thrilled with her new acquisition, Gardner rewarded Berenson with a generous Christmas present, a small watercolor landscape by Camille Pissaro.
At 152 Beacon
Gardner hung her new Botticelli in the Red Drawing Room in her house at 152 Beacon Street. Opposite Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait Age 23, its location was ideal for showing off to visitors.
A friend wrote to her in admiration, “Really, we shall have to put up a statue to you, right under the picture, and when the haughty New Yorkers come here and ask with an aristocratical sneer whether we have any pictures in our Museum as good as the Marquand Collection, we shall say—casually—“ oh yes—we have the best Botticelli in America—would you like to look at it?” And we shall watch them wilt and slink away.
Gardner kept a handwritten catalogue of her most prized works. She included a photograph of Lucretia above an article by Berenson describing its salient features.
In the Raphael Room
When Gardner completed her Museum and opened it to the public in 1903, she hung Botticelli’s Lucretia in the Raphael Room on a wall of greatest hits. The first Botticelli in America joined the first Raphael (Count Tommaso Inghirami) and the first Carlo Crivelli (Saint George Slaying the Dragon).
As Gardner’s collection expanded, she eventually moved the painting to the wall on the opposite side of the door, preserving its location in this important room. It has remained there until February 2019, when it was removed and hung in the Hostetter Gallery for the special exhibition, Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes.