One of the few museums in North America that transports visitors to another place is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston. If you have been to the Gardner you already know this, but if you haven't, you are in for a wonderful surprise when you step into the courtyard of the museum as you will really feel, for a short while, like you are in the middle of Venice (Isabella's favorite foreign destination). The Gardner's exquisite courtyard alone is reason enough for the museum to be a favorite of so many people, but happily Mrs. Gardner's entire collection is stellar (I love practically everything here, but three works in particular are stand-outs for me: 'The Seated Scribe' (Gentile Bellini), 'The Rape of Europa' (Titian), and 'El Jaleo' (John Singer Sargent).
A gift of a Gardner museum membership to someone who lives in the northeast is a great idea (or tickets for a single visit), and if you know someone who will be visiting the Boston area it's also a good idea. You could pair the membership or visit gift with one or more of the books below as the Gardner is of national and international significance: in the early morning on March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers entered the museum and in eighty-one minutes made off with thirteen works of art, valued today at over $500 million. According to Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft (HarperCollins, 2009), the theft remains the largest property robbery in American history, and the Gardner staff continues to offer a $5 million reward for any information on the whereabouts of the missing masterpieces (the stolen works include paintings as well as a Chinese bronze beaker and a finial from a pole holding a Napoleonic silk flag). Boser notes that this is believed to be the biggest bounty ever offered by a private institution -- by comparison, the reward the Lindbergh family offered for any information on the kidnapping of their child is believed to be the second largest reward. At the time Boser's book was published, the Gardner's reward was exceeded only by the federal government's $25 million for Osama bin Laden.
Boser's book reads like a true-crime tale because it is one. This is no light story. It involves art detectives, the FBI, the Boston police, con men, art experts, organized crime, international terrorism, and a number of unsavory characters. Suspects have included the Irish Republican Army, the son of a police officer, Whitey Bulger, an antiques dealer, a Scotland Yard informant, and a New York City auction house employee. People have been hurt, murdered, and thrown in jail as a result of this theft but no arrests have been made, and there are no reports of the artworks being sold. An article in The New York Times that appeared on March 18, 2013 -- the twenty-third anniversary of the theft -- reported that federal authorities announced they knew the identities of the thieves and that they belonged to a criminal organization based in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. For his book, Boser spoke to many people who reacted to the theft as if it was very personal, and years later they are still deeply affected by it. He also asks, if a sculpture doesn't stand in a courtyard and a painting only appears as an image in an art history book, does it even matter? "...to any serious art lover, the answer is no. Every work of art is singular, unique, and when a creation goes missing, there is nothing left behind but inadequate facsimiles -- and fading memories. If a painting is stolen, if it's gone missing, it cannot be replaced. Lost art is lost forever."
The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro (Algonquin, 2012) is a novel inspired by the theft. It's a clever read that I very much enjoyed, with some good twists and moral questions to ponder. It's a perfect companion read for anyone interested in the Gardner or about art, and art forgery, in general.
Old Masters, New World: America's Raid on Europe's Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman (Penguin, 2008) traces the history of how a small handful of wealthy Americans created the first art museums in the United States, among them Isabella Stewart Gardner (the other collectors featured are J. P. Morgan, H. O. Havemeyer, Henry Clay Frick, and Henry Marquand). Saltzman is also the author of The Portrait of Dr. Gachet (Penguin), a book I absolutely could not put down, and she has revealed a fascinating chapter in American history with Old Masters, New World. She notes in the Introduction that though the United States in the late 19th century was a major world power, the country had meager collections of art. Painter Mary Cassatt wrote in June 1871 from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania that "I cannot tell you what I suffer for want of seeing a good picture." Cassatt had spent five years painting in France and was eager to return, and novelist Henry James told his mother in 1869 that Americans seem to have "the elements of the modern man with culture quite left out." Even later, in 1906, when the British critic Roger Fry served as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he noted the museum had "no Byzantine paintings, no Giotto, no Giottoesque, no Mantegna, no Botticelli, no Leonardo, no Raphael, no Michelangelo." In 1917, Gardner herself stated that "years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art...So I determined to make it my life work if I could." Saltzman refers to the Old Master works that crossed the Atlantic between the 1880s through the First World War as "one of history's great migrations of art," and this migration has come to a near standstill today as "those Old Masters that remain in European private collections are unlikely to leave the countries where they now reside because of export restrictions."
On the occasion of the Gardner's 100th anniversary in 2003, the Beacon Press published The Eye of the Beholder: Masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and this is a beautiful and substantive book that is alone a very nice gift (and that's the fabulous 'El Jaleo' on the cover below).
Until the 20th of January, the Gardner is hosting a special exhibit entitled 'The Inscrutable Eye: Watercolors by John Singer Sargent' (the museum has a particularly large and fine collection of Sargent's works). Music lovers may also be happy to know that the museum offers a full program, on Sundays, Monday afternoons, and third Thursdays (devoted to jazz).
Empty frames are in the places where the stolen paintings once hung at the Gardner. At the time Ulrich Boser was working on his book, Gardner security director Anthony Amore told him that "it's those frames that get me. Because with those frames just hanging up there, you can't say, 'I'm not coming into work today.' Every time I come in here, I think I have to get back in my office and start chasing those paintings down. Something clearly belongs in those rectangles." When Boser asked museum director Anne Hawley if she thought the artworks would ever be returned, she replied that "I live in hope. I dwell in possibility, as Emily Dickinson says. I just have to believe that the stolen paintings are still out there."
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