By: Amy Fredrickson 

In June 1896, Isabella Stewart Gardner acquired Titian’s The Rape of Europa from Colnaghi & Co. for 20,000 pounds. Correspondence between Bernard Berenson and Mrs. Gardner illustrates the acquisition and the foundation of her collection.  Her aim was to create a museum dedicated to Italian artworks for the benefit of the American people. She passionately believed that America was a country in need of art and Americans should have the opportunity to see the beautiful art and objects she revered in Europe. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was completed in 1903 and derived inspiration from the architecture of Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, where she frequently visited.

After learning that The Rape of Europa was for sale from a British private collection, Berenson wrote to Mrs. Gardner offering her the opportunity to purchase the painting. In discussing the painting, Berenson said, ‘One of the few greatest Titians in the world is Europa… I am dying to have you get [it]… Cable, please the one word YEUP= Yes Europa, or NEUP= No Europa.’ Clearly, she cabled ‘YEUP’ (Hadley 1987, p. 56 ).

Regarding the painting, Berenson wrote on June 7, 1896:  
‘Why can’t I be with you when Europa is unpacked! America is a land of wonders, but this sort of miracle it has not witnessed. […] I also spend time dreaming of your Museum. If my dreams make by a fair approach to realization yours shall not be the last among the kingdoms of earth (Hadley 1987, p. 56 ).’

According to Mrs. Gardner, The Rape of Europa became the crown jewel of her growing collection. This painting, in particular, aligned with Mrs. Gardner’s tastes. In a letter to Berenson, dated September 19, 1896, she described the joy of her new acquisition:

‘I am breathless about the Europa, even yet! I am back here tonight (when I found your letter) after a two days’ orgy. The orgy was drinking my self-drunk with Europa and then sitting for hours in my Italian garden at Brookline, thinking and dreaming about her. Many came with ‘grave doubts’: many came to scoff; but all wallowed at her feet (Hadley 1987, p. 66 ).’

Berenson replied a few days later on October 7, 1896:

‘I rejoice for dear old Boston that it hath people who can appreciate Europa, and your own pleasure in her is like a sweet savor to my nostrils. Courage, this is not the last of its kind that I hope to help you stock [your museum] with (Hadley 1987, p. 68 ).’

The Titian painting was one of many artworks Berenson helped Mrs. Gardner procure. Her painting is the last of the seven mythological scenes the artist painted for King Philip II of Spain. Titian began painting The Rape of Europa in 1559 and sent the painting to Spain in 1562. The companion paintings to The Rape of Europa are: Danae, Venus and Adonis, Perseus and Andromeda, Diana and Callisto,  and Diana and Actaeon. The Rape of Europa is a brilliant example of the Titian’s late manner.

The painting depicts an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The artist portrayed the wily Jupiter after he transformed into a beautiful white bull after seeing Europa. He blended in with a herd of cattle grazing on the sea shore. Accompanied by her companions, Europa approached the tame animal with her outstretched hand. Europa played with the disguised god in the meadow and adorned his horns with flowers. Finding him tame, she climbed on his back and the tricky god whisked her to the sea. From Phoenicia, the bull carried her to Crete, where he revealed his true identity. Consequently, Europa became the queen of Crete, and their union led to the birth of Minos—king of Crete and the Minoans.

The exact moment Titian portrays is when “The god little by little edges away from the dry land, and sets his borrowed hoofs in shallow water; then he goes further out and soon is in full flight with his prize on the open ocean. She trembles with fear and looks back at the receding shore, holding fast a horn with one hand and resting the other on the creature’s back. And her fluttering garments stream behind her in the wind.” (From Ovid, Metamorphoses, ii. 870-75, quoted by Stone, p. 47).

What is especially striking is that Titian fixed the action of the painting in the corner of the canvas. The monumental figure of his canvas is undoubtedly Europa. Her large form dominates the painting and establishes the naturalistic mood. In one hand, Europa is holding on to the bull by one horn, and in the other she is waving a crimson scarf to attract attention. Titian turned Europa towards the shore where her distraught handmaidens are frantic. His colours blend as the sea and sky unite, and there is the contrast between the reds and blues. Titian’s painting is filled with uncertainty—both horror and ecstasy. The latter is bolstered throughout the canvas between the cupids and their bows, the warmth of the sky, and the red cloth blowing in the wind. Adding tensions, a spiny, scaly, menacing sea monster breached the sea surface below Europa, and a cupid, mimicking her pose, trails Europa on a dolphin. Together these elements add to the tension. 

Originally, Isabella Stewart Gardner displayed the painting above a fireplace in her Beacon Street home,before placing it its final location. Mrs. Gardner based an entire room around her Titian painting, with opulent fabrics drawing the visitors focus to The Rape of Europa. Mrs. Gardner’s installations were personal. In fact, the fabric below The Rape of Europa is from one of her silk gowns from the House of Worth in Paris. Just as Titian represented Europa in a state of rumpled undress, Gardner surrenders one of her garments for the display. She made a clear choice since the bold pattern of the tassels guides the museum visitor to the tail of the bull. How she displayed her collection demonstrates the thought that went into grouping her paintings, furniture, and objects. Her aim was to establish a museum that would leave a lasting legacy in the United States, and her collection is especially remarkable because it is highly personal and unconventional. 

Mrs. Gardner often moved objects to include new acquisitions, and she paid attention to little details. For example, on the table underneath Europa is a small cherub that correlates with the cupids in the paintings. She rearranged the gallery twice. Her choice to shift the sculpture’s position from standing in 1903 to laying on its side in 1924 corresponds with both Europa’s pose and the cupid.

The museum space is remarkable because the works are in the exact place Mrs. Gardner positioned them to be viewed. She achieved her goal to establish a museum for the benefit of the American people and committed to collecting Old Masters. In 1917, Mrs. Gardner stated: 

‘Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life’s work if I could.’

Indeed, she accomplished her dream.


Titian Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. 

Titian, The Rape of Europa, c. 1560-1562, oil on canvas, 178 cm × 205 cm. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.


Hadley, Rollin van N., ed,. The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1924, With Correspondence by Mary Berenson. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987)

Pope, Arthur, Titian’s Rape Of Europa. (Cambridge: Published for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by Harvard University Press, 1960)

Stone, Jr., Donald, “The Source Of Titian’s Rape Of Europa,” The Art Bulletin 54, 1, 1972, pp. 47-49.

“Titian Room | Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” 2018. Gardnermuseum.Org.

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