Among the missing: Reflections on the Gardner Museum

  • The writer in the Dutch Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 2017. SUBMITTED PHOTO/JIM MEAD

For the Gazette 
Published: 6/26/2020 4:24:50 PM

In the photo you might first notice a portrait — a single figure, in muted blue and red, a billowy white sleeve, mahogany hair. Below that are three red brocade chairs, then two more of dark wood with sage green seats in front of an ornate wooden chest, and finally, three chairs covered in champagne pink silk, appearing larger because of the perspective. Each set of chairs is placed in an orderly row dictated long ago by their generous and highly prescriptive donor. 

Or perhaps you would notice the woman in cargo shorts, a tank top and sandals, her hair slipping out of a scrunchy, her hands holding a cellphone like a prayer book. 

But probably you’ll first notice the enormous, empty gilt frame. You’ll see the seafoam wallpaper outside the frame, but also, strangely, inside — because you’re looking at the frame for Rembrandt’s “Lady and Gentleman in Black.” A few yards to the right, beyond the edge of the photo, is the empty frame of Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” If you’re from Boston, I don’t need to explain: You’re looking at a crime scene, the Dutch Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 

There’s something about this photo — how it feels when I see it now, at the beginning of summer, still on the knife-edge of the coronavirus pandemic here in Massachusetts. What I know is that in the photo I’m a tourist. It’s July; I’m on a trip to Boston from where I live in western Massachusetts. I can feel the freedom of summer, arms and legs bare, sandals and the face — my mouth and nose happily exposed. 

For 30 years, we have seen this room and felt the pain of the empty frames, the missing paintings. But at this moment in June 2020, with a deadly virus still at large, and widespread rage and grief over the sadistic deaths of Black Americans (with many asking, “Where is Christ now?” and “Who will calm this storm?”), I admit that I would love to breathe the rarified air of the Gardner Museum again. 

I first heard about the Gardner through the mystery novels of Jane Langton, which I read during the 13 years I lived at a center for Tibetan Buddhism in Northern California. I’d lived in Cambridge years earlier, having first gone to school in Amherst, so reading about Massachusetts held a certain nostalgia. For someone supposedly focused on attaining enlightenment, it was a guilty pleasure. (I kept a stash of novels in my closet, and occasionally, after a particularly grueling day in the dharma salt mines, a fellow yogi would appear at my desk and say quietly, “I need a book.”) 

I dreamed of sitting at the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, of eating ice cream from Toscanini’s in Central; I wanted to visit every place Langton described: Orchard House, the Manse, the Sanders Theatre in Memorial Hall, the elegant churches near the Boston Common. I missed New England; I listened to “Car Talk” with something like reverence. 

When I finally moved back to western Massachusetts in 2011, I was focused on piecing together a living and didn’t get to Boston right away, but I reread Langton’s novels. Holed up in my apartment in Amherst, I was happy just to know that I could, conceivably, hop on the Peter Pan bus and see their settings in real life. Like a baby who is calmed just knowing her mother is within sight, I was soothed by their proximity. 

I finally made it to the Gardner in 2017, the time of this photo in the Dutch Room, and the trip was more than I had imagined: bliss on three floors, the orchids and hanging nasturtiums in the central courtyard, John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo,” Piermatteo D’Amelia’s “Annunciation.” I wanted to live there. I understood why people spend their lives in museums.  

Shortly after that, I talked to a friend who feels that the Gardner is too dark, too cluttered. To him, it’s a travesty that Mrs. Gardner’s will dictates that the works shall always be displayed in the same way, and that if anything is altered in the number or arrangement of them, the trustees are bound to dismantle the entire collection — thus ending the museum. 

But now, in the time and place of a coronavirus pandemic, many years after Mrs. Gardner’s death, I have spent months traveling in my mind. I feel more understanding of Mrs. Gardner’s particular “attachments,” as the Buddhists say. 

I try to imagine how the museum seemed to her. We experience it as a time capsule, but what was it like for someone who was friends with Henry James and John Singer Sargent — this woman whose wealth afforded her the privilege of such eccentricity that there were news reports of her being seen on Beacon Street walking a lion on a leash?   

She once said in response to the many rumors about her life, “Don’t spoil a good story with the truth.” However, in her case the truth was still plenty fascinating.

Like the Buddha, the privileges of her birth couldn’t shield her from impermanence. She lost a child to pneumonia before his second birthday, then lost another child to miscarriage and was told she wouldn’t be able to have more children. She then lost her sister-in-law, one of her closest friends. She fell into a debilitating depression, so much so that her husband finally had her carried on a mattress onto a ship bound for Europe. Many years later, she continued the project of creating the museum after the death of her husband, in part as a way of working with grief. 

But now, looking at this photo of the Dutch Room, I can’t help but wonder what our beloved micromanager would have felt to discover that in March 1990, one of the night guards allowed two men in police uniforms into the museum, supposedly in response to a call reporting a disturbance. How would she react to find out they left 81 minutes later with three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, and nine other items from the collection? 

It’s been three decades since the heist — long enough that if the stolen works were returned and the thieves discovered, they could avoid all charges because of the statute of limitations. 

I consider all this from where I live in the Pioneer Valley, months since Gov. Charlie Baker first asked as many of us as possible to stay at home, even longer since the virus forced the Gardner to close its doors. The state has said museums can reopen, in some way at least, in Phase 3 of Baker’s reopening plan.

I wish I could talk to Mrs. Gardner, or even just stand in front of her portrait by John Singer Sargent. I wish I could tell her that in spite of the violation to her precious palace, some of us are patiently waiting, and maybe newly relating to her desire to hold on to a time, a place, a sanctuary of sublimity.

And to the robbers or whoever is now holding the missing works hostage all these years later, there is a very nice museum director who would love to hear from you.  

​​​​​​Anna Smith is a writer whose work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review blog, After the Art, TriQuarterly, Louisiana Literature, Phoebe and other journals. She teaches with the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s University Without Walls program and lives on a small farm in HadleyShe  can be found on Twitter: @innergothic.

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