In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, there was a tragic death in the family. Not my family, but “our” family. Perhaps a better description is that there was a kidnapping but with each passing day, month and year the return of the loved one grows less likely. Now and then the FBI comes upon a clue that tantalizes us and exposes the wound left by the perpetrators of this crime.
I am speaking of the theft of thirteen great masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the largest art theft in history. In a well orchestrated theft at least two men disguised as Boston Police Officers duped a Museum security guard to open the door to the museum and in a very short period of time some of the most priceless paintings held by the museum were taken from their home, from all of us. The curators of the museum continue to maintain empty frames on the walls where the beloved works once hung as a reminder of this injustice. Read more about the theft at: http://www.gardnermuseum.org/resources/theft
A recent article in the Hartford Courant spurred me to recall the great tragedy of the Gardner art theft and at the same time to reminisce about my own visit to the Gardner. One of the cretins of humanity that may have participated in the theft, an elderly mobster, is now in Federal custody and is being questioned about the heist. Will the authorities finally obtain the clue they need to solve this crime and restore the missing art to its home? The only consolation any of us has is that the theft has not been forgotten and the Gardner Museum remains one of the finest places I can imagine to view fine art.
I am only a casual art aficionado, but whenever I find myself at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford or during a recent visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston I cringe at the thought that any of the works of art contained therein could ever be lost to theft. Fine works of art have monetary value, but in reality they are invaluable. When we view an artist’s work we are sharing the artist’s thoughts, feelings, that essence of humanity that we all have in common. Art is a window into the mind of the artist and at the same time a window into our own minds. Anyone who reads this will likely have their own ‘thoughts” about art and I would love to hear what others have to say.
I gained an appreciation for fine art while in college. As a junior I was rounding out a demanding core curriculum and chose Art History for one of my courses. Part of the “unadvertised” curriculum involved a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—on my own time and at my own expense. In those days the allocation of my funds passed through a mathematical formula best stated as “How many beers can that buy?” After briefly whining about this imposition I came around and embraced the adventure. I took a train into the city with a small group of my classmates and spent a day at the Met immersing myself in art. Any complaints about my professor’s onerous requirements melted away in that fabulous building. My professor’s passion for art was infectious and I am happy to have caught even a fraction of his enthusiasm for art. Since college I have visited other museums including the Gardner in Boston and plan to continue to do so as I see something “new” in the same paintings and sculptures with every visit. Art truly “lives” and speaks to the observer in different ways at different times. The loss of great works of art to theft is felt deeply by anyone who has ever had the pleasure of viewing them—and even worse for those who will never have that opportunity. Generations can only wonder what they would have experienced while standing in the presence of those missing masterpieces.
Rather than dwell on the negative at times such as this we should remember what we still possess. Isabella Stewart Gardner was an amazing woman whose love of art culminated in a gift she gave to us all during her lifetime when she built a museum to house her family’s art collection. She built a museum like no other and a visit to this art “shrine” should be on everyone’s list of things to do this year—not some “bucket list.” Please read this short piece I plucked from the museum’s website:
Over three decades, Isabella Stewart Gardner traveled the world and worked with important art patrons and advisors Bernard Berenson and Okakura Kakuzo to amass a remarkable collection of master and decorative arts. In 1903, she completed the construction of Fenway Court in Boston to house her collection and provide a vital place for Americans to access and enjoy important works of art. Isabella Gardner installed her collection of works in a way to evoke intimate responses to the art, mixing paintings, furniture, textiles, and objects from different cultures and periods among well-known European paintings and sculpture. Fenway Court, as the museum was called at its inception, is the only private art collection in which the building, collection and installations are the creation of one individual. Isabella Stewart Gardner's vision that the museum remain as she arranged it "for the education and enrichment of the public forever" is reflected in every aspect of the museum. The museum's seal, designed by Isabella Gardner and Boston artist and designer Sarah Wyman Whitman, bears a phoenix (a symbol of immortality) above the phrase C'est mon plaisir ("It is my pleasure").
Isabella’s pleasure has become our pleasure and her gift has endured and continues to bring joy and enrichment to all who are fortunate enough to visit her museum. Isabella’s life and “persona” live on and more can be read about her incredible life and love of art on the museum’s website. I couldn’t resist including the following about Isabella:
The local press was both fascinated and scandalized by her. Isabella Gardner did not conform to the traditional restraining code of conduct expected of Boston matrons in the Victorian era, but lived an engaging, exuberant life including much travel, entertaining, and adventure. She also had a sense of humor, however. Commenting on the numerous rumors and speculations about her escapades, many untrue, she is quoted as saying, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth." As Isabella Stewart Gardner approached the end of her life, her desire to leave an endowment for the preservation of the museum forced her to be more financially conservative, and she often complained that the robber baron collectors, J. P. Morgan, Henry Frick, and Peter Widener-the "squillionaires," as she called them-could outspend her on the acquisition of new works.
I hope that you can visit her museum, and enjoy her gift to you. I would be remiss if I did not mention Farmington’s own Isabella Stewart Gardner, Theodate Pope Riddle. She is our patroness of the arts who left us the Hill-Stead Museum. I cannot help but wonder whether Isabella influenced Theodate’s decision to create the Hill-Stead. Theodate must have visited the Gardner Museum and, as an architect, had to marvel at its architectural significance and beauty. Do you suppose the two ever met? Coincidentally, many will recall that a conspiracy to steal art from the Hill-Stead in 1982 was thwarted by the FBI. One can only lament that the same was not true of the Gardner.
Now that I have thoroughly worked myself up about art a visit to the MoMA this spring is a must. Playing hooky from work may be required to accomplish this “field trip” as kids’ soccer may not permit it otherwise.