Ralph Curtis was the son of Daniel and Arianna Curtis, Bostonians who moved permanently to Venice in the late 1870s. After graduating from Harvard (where he was one of the founders of the Lampoon), Curtis studied in Paris at the studio of Carolus-Duran. There he met John Singer Sargent, a distant relative, who became a good friend and sometime painting companion. Curtis met Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1884, when the Gardners spent five weeks in Venice. Thereafter, they met and corresponded frequently. Curtis found works of art for Mrs. Gardner, wrote about developments in the art world, and kept her up-to-date on “gondola gossip” in Venice.
Ralph Curtis’s painting of a gondola gliding through Venice must have held special meaning for Mrs. Gardner. Like the woman depicted, she and Curtis spent many hours in each other’s company floating through the canals. The slight touch of purple through the sky and in the water, along with the mysterious faces of the woman and her gondolier, adds the perfect tone of languid, exotic atmosphere to the scene.
Source: Richard Lingner, "Return from the Lido," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 111