Seeing is Believing

Saint Engracia
Bartolomé Bermejo (Spanish, about 1436 – about 1498)
Oil on pine panel, about 1474
Purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner from the Somzée sale, Brussels, for 56,000 francs in 1904 (about $224,000 today), through Fernand Robert, her regular agent in Paris.

Gardner rarely had the luxury of seeing works in person before buying them, but this regal figure captured her attention.

In 1900, Gardner visited the Universal Exposition in Paris, an elaborate celebration of the last century's progress and a heady glimpse of what was ahead. With her was a family friend, artist Ralph Curtis — and throngs of other people, hundreds of thousands each day, mobbing the halls of the world's fair.

The Exposition boasted all manner of captivating sights, from a ferris wheel to talking films. There were pagodas from Japan and a mock Elizabethan mansion. But in the Belgian Pavilion, Gardner and Curtis saw what was for them the most wondrous thing: a gilded painting of a noble woman who became a saint.

Saint Engracia Bartolomé Bermejo, about 1474

The glittering painting was owned by the Belgian collector and diplomat Léon de Somzée. It was the central panel of an altarpiece about the life of Engracia, a Portuguese princess (and later a saint) brutally tortured by the Romans. Perhaps drawn to the vibrant colours and rich surface detail or the story of a martyred noblewoman, Gardner and Curtis both responded with interest.

The Eiffel Tower and the Celestial Globe in the Universal Exhibition of 1900
Neurdein Frères
The Belgium pavilion at the Universal Exhibition of 1900, Paris
An illustration from Le Petit Journal, 15th July 1900.
Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images
belgian pavilion
The Exposition’s enormous structures hinted at the wonders to be seen. A colorful poster advertised the offerings of the Belgium Pavilion, where Saint Engracia was on display.
Ralph Curtis
Vianelli, Venice
Photograph, 1884
Ralph Curtis

In addition to being an artist whose pieces Gardner collected, Ralph Curtis was one of many advisers she relied on to help her acquire great works for her museum. The Curtis family’s palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice was a source of inspiration for Gardner's museum.

Palazzo Barbaro
About 1894
Palazzo Barbaro About 1894
Photograph of Bartolomé Bermejo's 'Saint Engracia'
engracia bw
Curtis sent Gardner a small black-and-white photo of the painting to remind her of its beauty. She kept it in one of her sketchbooks.


In 1904, there was a surprising development in the tale of Saint Engracia: she was for sale. Ralph Curtis wrote to his friend reminding her of their great admiration for the work and encouraging her to acquire it.

Curtis tasked Gardner's regular agent in Paris, Fernand Robert, with securing the painting at the upcoming Brussels auction. Most of Gardner’s acquisitions were made sight unseen, based on second-hand descriptions or black and white photographs from her advisors. Saint Engracia would be one of the very few times she purchased a work she had seen herself.

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Copyright © 2016 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. All rights reserved.

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Premier Exhibition Sponsor: The Richard C. von Hess Foundation. The opening reception and preview are generously sponsored by Tom and Lisa Blumenthal. Exhibition support is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for Humanities. This exhibition also is supported in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which receives support from the State of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Any viewings, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Media Sponsor: 90.9 WBUR, Boston’s NPR® News Station.