The first painting Giovanni DeCunto ever sold, when he was 12, was a rendering of Rembrandt’s “The Man With the Golden Helmet.” Decades later, DeCunto painted another man with a golden helmet: Donald Trump. (That painting now belongs to car dealer Ernie Boch Jr., who’s a big supporter of the president.)
The North End artist spilled a lot of paint in between, doing portraits of George H.W. Bush, Gianni Versace, Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy Jr., Shaquille O’Neal, and David Ortiz. His latest project, which he calls “13,” is a series of interpretations of the 13 artworks stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. (The museum has no role in DeCunto’s venture, but says it’s pleased to know that “even in their absence, these missing works continue to inspire contemporary artists today.”)
DeCunto’s take on Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and the 12 other pilfered works will be on public display March 1-17 at the Giovanni DeCunto Gallery at 116 South St. The other day, we chatted with the artist on the phone.
Q. Where did this idea come from?
A. It’s funny. Sometimes it’s just what you hear. I’d painted Ernie Boch Jr.’s mother and father and grandfather. We were coming out of a dinner at the Capital Grille, and he turned to me and said, “You know, you should paint the paintings that were stolen from the Gardner.” As soon as he said that to me, an electronic response went to my brain, and it became something I had to do. I think it’s something the people of Boston need to see. Whoever stole those paintings tore away part of our past.
Q. Do you think they’ll ever be found?
A. I was at one of my shows and a guy who was interested in one of my paintings said he was one of the policemen investigating the heist. It was freaky. I’m not sure if they’ll find them, but through modern technology, at least we have remnants of them.
Q. Have you spoken to anyone at the Gardner about this project?
A. A little bit. They seem very encouraging.
Q. Stylistically, your versions are quite different from the originals, to say the least. How do you characterize your style?
A. My style is made up of Baroque — they painted in a certain way — and the Impressionists and also Pop. . . . I learned from all of these artists, and I broke them down to make my own method. I can paint anything using my method. But these styles made it possible for me to paint the way I do.
Q. You’ve done a lot of portraits of celebrities and athletes.
A. That started very early in my career. What I try to do is paint the people who’ve contributed to our culture. I’ve done Tiger Woods and Ortiz and Roger Clemens, and I did a painting for Bill Belichick’s foundation.
Q. How did the Trump portrait come about?
A. There’s Ernie again. He called and said, “Could you paint this for a fund-raiser?” It was when Trump was just starting on the [campaign] trail. I’ve always been a fan of his way of doing stuff. He seems to get the job done. But I’m not a political person. I’m just like a voyeur. I just report what’s going on.
Q. But Ernie kept the Trump painting, right?
A. Yes, he has it.
Q. You’ve painted Ernie’s whole family.
A. Him, his father and mother, and his grandfather, and I’ve painted stuff for his sisters, too.
Q. Wow. He’s like your very own House of Medici.
A. Ernie’s just really involved. He does so much.
Q. What do you want to happen with these 13 paintings?
A. I’m hoping someone purchases the whole thing and keeps them together. With all these big buildings going up, if someone bought the whole thing, they could hang them. Art always goes with architecture.
Q. Or maybe they’ll be stolen.
A. Oh, I’ll stay awake tonight.