Mrs. Gardner sat for Sargent during his visit to Boston in January 1888. He was paid $3000 for the portrait, which was exhibited to great acclaim at Boston’s St. Botolph Club. The work also inspired gossip and legend: someone jokingly titled it “Woman: An Enigma,” while others believed that the sensuous display of flesh deliberately echoed the scandal recently created by Sargent’s Madame X. Mrs. Gardner herself said that she rejected eight renderings of the face until she was satisfied.
Jack Gardner seems to have asked his wife not to publicly show the portrait again while he was alive, and indeed the portrait was placed in the Gothic Room, which remained private until Mrs. Gardner’s death. In its gallery, surrounded by altarpieces, stained glass, and religious statuary, the sacramental quality noted by nineteenth-century reviewers is even more pronounced.