Has any museum ever lost more, qualitatively, than the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum lost 23 years ago? The story of the theft itself, of course, is enthralling. We all love an unsolved art heist. The bravado, the brutality, the mysteries of motive and aftermath — it all seems perfectly cinema-ready. But whenever you think about the pictures themselves, it’s all just incredibly sad.
What were those pictures? Let’s start with Rembrandt.
We’re often told that “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was his only seascape. We know, too, that it was big; you can tell just how big from the empty frame that dominates the Gardner’s Dutch Room. But who was Rembrandt, and why care so much about a painting illustrating a well-known story from the New Testament?
One reason: Because Rembrandt was one of the three greatest painters of all time (the other two were Titian and Velazquez). Another: Because he was the greatest narrative artist. He was the best, in other words, at using all the tools of picture construction (composition, lighting, facial and bodily expression) to create drama, to give stories and parables their greatest possible human significance and emotional impact.
That he did this so effectively in “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” is obvious from photographs: Look at the dynamic contrasts between light and shade. Look at the convulsed and frantic bodies that contend with sails and crashing waves. And marvel at the contrast between the frightened and pleading expressions of the disciples — one of them even vomits over the side! — and the resolute calm of Christ.
What you cannot sense from photographs is the excitement of seeing, almost feeling, the rich physicality, the sheer heft and intensity, of Rembrandt’s brush strokes. No painter squeezed more feeling, more realism, more credibility out of oil paint. There is no way to grasp this other than by standing in front of the real thing.
So yes, quite a loss.
Then there is Rembrandt’s younger contemporary, Johannes Vermeer. What a contrast! Where Rembrandt had a nose for drama, both physical and spiritual, Vermeer was the world’s great visual poet of quietude (which has its own drama, of course). Feminine calm and self-containment radiate from his matchless pictures.
Vermeer’s paint, so unlike the muscular physicality of Rembrandt, is achingly in tune with the poignant transience of the moments he depicts. Its evanescent effects — pooling pinpricks of colored light on a satin skirt, an oriental carpet, or a pearl earring — are purely optical.
But again, it is only when standing in front of his paintings that you are able to grasp the miraculous way in which Vermeer used a physical substance, pigment mixed with oil, to achieve such weightless and immaterial effects.
Rarity, too, is a stimulant, so it is hard to forget that there are only about three dozen paintings by Vermeer in the world. The loss of one of them — and “The Concert” happens to be among his finest — is a bitter blow.
Manet was simply the most fascinating artist to emerge from the creative cauldron that was Paris in the second half of the 19th century. His cool, secretly romantic sense of the world, his wit and invention, all still seem shockingly contemporary.
His sense of art history as a live concern, and of contemporary life as good fodder for his finest inventions, inspires legions of young artists today. “Chez Tortoni,” which shows a man in a top hat sitting on a terrace outside Manet’s favorite cafes, is no masterpiece, but it is classic Manet.
The loss of any drawing by Manet’s great friend and rival, Edgar Degas, is felt sharply. None of the five Degas drawings that were stolen counts as great in itself.
But he was, after all, one of the finest and most exciting draughtsman in the history of Western art. The disappearance of one would be a pity. But five?
I have not even mentioned the painted double portrait and etched self-portrait by Rembrandt or the landscape by Govaert Flinck. All are terrific pictures.
How much does the loss of all these works hurt? You don’t have to ask the Gardner, which is obviously dismayed by its loss. You just have to look at photographs of the works themselves, and then let your imagination measure the difference between virtual and real. It’s a giant loss.