Gardner Museum to recognize 20-year anniversary of unsolved crime
By FRANCES J. FOLSOM
Visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum can’t help but notice the empty picture frames and blank spaces on some of the gallery walls with discreet notices stating what used to hang there.
On March 18, 1990, one of the largest art thefts in the world took place in the museum.
In her world travels, Gardner amassed a priceless collection of 2,500 artifacts of statuary, tapestries, Dante manuscripts and paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, Titian, Botticelli, Manet and Sargent.
Born in 1840 into a wealthy New York family, Isabella Stewart was 20 when she married John Lowell Gardner Jr. scion of an old Boston family. From then on, she would be known in the society pages as “Mrs. Jack.”
Gardner was never really accepted socially by the Boston Brahmins. She wasn’t from Boston and was educated in Paris, where she developed a taste for that city’s fashions. More important, the Stewart fortune wasn’t old money descending through generations, as it did in her husband’s family, the Gardners, Peabodys, Lowells and Endicotts.
Nevertheless, guests clamored for an invitation to one of the elegant parties she hosted at her Beacon Street home. She took under her wing writers and artists such as Henry James, Francis Marion Crawford, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, introducing them to all the right people who could further their careers.
She was a vibrant, fascinating woman whose interests included art, classical music, horse racing and cheering on the Harvard football team and her beloved Red Sox.
The Gardners took their first trip to Europe after their 18-month-old son, Jackie, died of pneumonia in 1865. To soothe her grief, Gardner threw herself into collecting art.
They traveled around the world several times over three decades, acquiring art and decorative pieces in China, Japan, Egypt, France and Italy; “El Jaleo” by Sargent; “Death and the Assumption of the Virgin” by Fra Angelico; Peter Paul Rubens’ “Portrait of Thomas Howell, 2nd Earl of Arundel”; “Portrait of Madam Auguste Manet” by Edouard Manet; and Titian’s “Europa,” to name a few.
On their many trips to Venice, the Gardners would take up residence in the Palazzo Barbarro for months, visiting galleries, buying art and attending the theater and operas.
Gardner first met John Singer Sargent in 1886; two years later, Sargent painted his infamous portrait of her with her pearls and plunging neckline. The painting was so scandalous for the time that when it was unveiled at the St. Botolph Club, Jack Gardner ordered it never to be shown in public again.
Sargent would do several paintings of her during their 35-year friendship. He’s known to have said, “Mrs. Gardner does more for my paintings than I could ever do.”
When Jack Gardner died in 1898, Isabella Gardner purchased land in the Fens area to build her home and museum for their collections. She hired Boston architect Willard Sears and was involved in every aspect of the building process, from instructing Sears to design it to like the Palazzo Barbarro with an interior courtyard to climbing ladders to show how she wanted her paintings hung and overseeing her Worth gowns fashioned into backdrops for her artwork.
On New Year’s Day 1903, Gardner opened her home, Fenway Court, to Boston society. Legend has it that she greeted her guests standing at the top of the grand staircase wearing a strand of perfectly matched pearls that cascaded the entire length of the stairs.
Until her death in 1924, the museum was open one day a week, welcoming 2,000 visitors a year. Today, that number has increased to 200,000 yearly.
Gardner left her museum in a trust stipulating that after her death, nothing in it could be changed. That’s why there are the empty frames and spaces on the gallery walls; these were the artworks stolen the night of March 18, 1990.
Two men dressed as Boston Police officers rang the bell and told the guard, a young Berklee College of Music student, they had received a call about a disturbance. When he refused to open the door, the two intimidated him by saying he looked like someone they had arrested the week before. Out of fear, he let them in.
When the second guard, another Berklee student, arrived, the thieves bound and tied them. They then began their 81-minute spree, taking 13 works of art: Vermeer’s “The Concert”; three Rembrandts – “A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and “Self Portrait”; “Landscape With an Obelisk” by Govaert Flinck; “Chez Tortoni” by Edouard Manet; a Chinese beaker dating to the Shang Dynasty (1200-1100 BC); five ink and pencil sketchings by Degas; and a finial from the top of a Napoleonic flag.
“An experienced art thief spends no more than 15 minutes getting their targets,” Anthony Amore, director of security, said at a talk about the museum. “The fact that the thieves took as long as they did shows they didn’t know what to steal; they stabbed and cut paintings from their frames, leaving behind other priceless art. I think the finial was taken as a trophy.”
Amore went on to say, “This is still an open case with the FBI. The art is valued at $500 million; the $5 million reward still stands. We firmly believe that all the art will be returned someday.”
The museum is going forth with a $118 million addition by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The extra space will allow the curators to broaden their educational, artist-in-residence and outreach programs.
Isabella Stewart Gardner, patron of the arts that she was, would undoubtedly approve of this.