The Gardner’s Empty Frames

Boston, MA

From Dennis Nealon’s Blog

INSIDE THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM 

What irony.

With the historic 1990 robbery at the Gardner Museum back on the front pages, people are again heading to this beautiful art-world mecca to see what they cannot see.

The museum’s “Palace Courtyard.” The Dutch Room is located on the second level.

Empty frames still hung on the walls—once the cradles of indescribable masterpieces—are a star attraction. Not the only lure. But an effective one. How do we know this? From eavesdropping in the “palace” today as visitors spoke quietly to each other or hung on a docent’s every word while she conjured the crime story in the very room where the thieves did their sinful deed.

It’s true: what’s bringing a lot of people through the doors of this beautiful oasis is what is no longer there. Head up to the Dutch Room on the second floor and see those empty frames, left just where they were when they still held some of the world’s most important art, like Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (south wall) and Vermeer’s The Concert (west wall). Staring at those frames in the partially darkened space, amid the muted footfalls and whispers of tourists, is like being in some sort of ghost story.  

Directly across from the empty frame that held Storm on the Sea of Galilee is Rembrandt’s own Self Portrait, done by the artist in 1629 when he was 23 years old. It’s still there. This stunning work—so life like that you want to have a conversation with the image—is thought to have been the master’s own marketing tool, an advertisement for his services. He hadn’t received any portrait commissions at the time, so one theory posits this is his demonstration piece. And what a gem it is.

Self Portrait

Eerily, the master’s self-portrait faces the empty frame where ‘Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ once hung.

As it happens, Rembrandt’s oil-on-wood self-impersonation is looking directly across the room at the empty frame that held Storm on the Sea of Galilee. And that painted face in the self-portrait registers a look that could be a soft bewilderment or sad resignation over what’s occurred in that space.

Who can blame the Gardner curiosity crowd? Twenty-five years on, and the mystery of what exactly happened there in the black, early morning hours of March 18 only grows more intense.

Just this week, a new video appeared, stoking the mystery anew. The eerie clip depicts an unidentified man being buzzed into the premises, via a Palace Road security entrance, for a brief practice run a day before the theft happened. Yeah, that video raises a lot more questions. Maybe enough to keep us wondering for another quarter century.

Actually, many of the crime’s details have been pieced together by the countless security and law enforcement agencies that have investigated the theft. They know there were two thieves, the time they entered and left the museum, where they went inside, and so forth. You can even take a virtual tour of the crime. To calculate the number of words that have been written about the robbery, take the number of years that have passed since and multiply that by a few million.

But standing in the Dutch Room is where it hits you—driving your imagination into overdrive. And the questions come to run around your head. If these 13 works haven’t turned up anywhere at all, doesn’t that suggest that they are hidden in the private collection of some billionaire somewhere? You picture him (or her?) in silk pajamas and suede slippers, seated contentedly, the exalted lord of all Bond villains, perhaps stroking a creepy looking cat, staring up at his booty on the wall, cross-legged, sipping a Scotch or the like.

You wonder about all of the possible explanations for the robbery—all of the suppositions out there. And you add your own to the pile. Pretend that the art never left the building. It’s been hidden right there, underfoot, the whole time; left practically in plain sight by a maniacal marketing genius with a plan to stage the robbery and build an international buzz to keep visitors pouring through the doors. The icing on his idea? Leave the frames up on the walls, right where they were when they had the canvasses in them.