So Walt has plans to attend a retirement dinner for a fellow Iron Worker and I’m coming along for the ride, of course.
We’ve packed our carefully curated collection of clothing and gear and headed north. We were supposed to stop in Durham to see Lauren and Bobby but Hurricane Florence put the kibosh on that segment of the trip.
Walt tells me to choose how to spend our “found” day so I decide on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It’s an eclectic, very personal collection of all types of art – from Roman gravestones to Rembrandt paintings with everything from Chinese bowls to Belgian lace to a miniature mandolin and two poison-tipped pygmy arrows in between.
I’m more interested in what’s missing: the 13 items stolen in a daring, still-unsolved theft on March 18, 1990. While the thieves – reportedly two men dressed as police officers – took an assortment of artwork, including a bronze eagle finial and five drawings by Degas, it’s two specific works that make this the “biggest unsolved art theft in world history.” The thieves stole Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (his only known seascape) and Vermeer’s The Concert, the Gardner estimates the pair are worth more than $500 million.
Unlike most museums, which would remove the empty frame and re-hang the remaining art so that visitors wouldn’t be aware of the loss, the ISG left the empty frames. Part of the rationale is that the museum was also Mrs. Gardner’s home and everything was placed by her in specific rooms, next to specific works. She opened the museum to the public while she was alive. It’s meant to be a glimpse inside one woman’s relationship with art. The museum website says the empty frames are a symbol of hope that the works will one day return.
I minored in art history in college and have always loved art and museums and became fascinated by the newspaper and magazine accounts of the theft nearly three decades ago.
So here we are, a little overwhelmed by the jam-packed museum. There is so much to see. One of my favorite parts is Isabella’s enclosed garden. The building rises four stories above it, making it a little oasis you can look into from many of the exhibition rooms.
We wandered the entire three floors of the museum. There are no descriptive plaques on the walls but there are little laminated sheets in each room describing the works. It’s kind of fun for me to try to guess if I’m looking at a Manet or a Renoir and then check it against the sheet.
In some rooms, I just let my eye wander until I’m captivated by one work, then go to the sheets to read the description. An 18thcentury viola captures my eye, it’s just a lovely piece of art, as does a grouping of Belgian lace in another room. A terracotta piece captures my attention in another room; the colors are just so vivid, it’s hard to believe this work is hundreds of years old. Some things are difficult to enjoy, being hung high up or in a room that is dimly lit (for the preservation of the works). I overhear a museum employee telling a couple that the biggest complaint they get is that the rooms are too dimly lit.
The Dutch Room, from which the Rembrandt and Vermeer were stolen, is the last stop. It’s also the room with John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, presiding from a prominent corner. Sad to think of her spirit hanging out here, missing two of her prizes every day.
There’s lots of theories about the theft, of course. Some argue that the thieves were amateurs who didn’t realize the value of what they took until the theft hit the news. Then they couldn’t find buyers for the best-known of their heist. Others argue the “Dr. No” theory: that some wealthy collector commissioned the theft of the Vermeer and the Rembrandt and the reason they’ve never been found is that they are in someone’s very private collection.
Regardless, I’m glad we saw the museum, including the empty frames.