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.
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